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The Beal Legacy

William J. Beal was one of Michigan State University's most prolific and respected professors and made a large impact on the curriculum and landscape of MSU's campus. He was a contemporary of Dr. Charles Darwin and exchanged correspondence with him.

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Transcript of The Beal Legacy

The Beal Botanical Garden is considered the oldest continuously operating botanic garden in the United States. The idea for the garden was Professor Beal’s inspiration. His goal was to assemble a collection of 140 species of grasses native to Michigan. He collected grasses, as well as other native species, for several years and by 1877, he had selected a site near the Red Cedar River to begin formal planting.
Originally called the “Wild Garden”, the area had several ponds, bogs, and a brook which ran from north campus to the river. However, pollution caused the brook to be drained in 1914 and the Garden was expanded and reconfigured to illustrate several plant families. In 1925, the garden was officially named the William J. Beal Botanical Garden.
The Beal Legacy
William J. Beal was one of our most prolific and respected professors and placed an inimitable footprint on the curriculum and landscape of Michigan State’s campus. Beal’s contributions to the study the natural environment, and his development of new scientific agricultural techniques earned him a distinguished place in the history of Michigan State University.
Dr. William Beal’s most notable experiments resulted in the development of the first hybrid corn varieties which were used to boost corn production rates for farmers. He also conducted the first turf grass experiments and developed conservation and reforestation techniques used to
re-populate losses due to massive logging. He established the first Michigan Forestry Commission and designed what we know as Beal Garden. It is the oldest, continuously operated botanical garden in the U.S.
William J. Beal was born in 1833 and raised near Adrian, Michigan, four years before Michigan became a state. He was raised in the wilderness country and while there, developed his great love for nature and horticulture. A graduate of Harvard, Beal came to (Michigan) State Agriculture College, in 1870. At that time the college was just a collection of a few buildings and offered little more than survey courses in science and agriculture. Upon his appointment to the faculty, his goal was to research and teach advanced topics in experimental botany, agronomy, forest science, and scientific agriculture. Beal retired in in 1910 at the age of 77, however he could still be seen regularly around campus until his death in 1924.
The “Seed Experiment” was begun by Dr. William Beal in 1879 as a study of seed vitality. He wished to study how long common seeds could be kept dormant and later germinated. The year 2012 marks the 133rd anniversary of that experiment.
Beal selected 20 kinds of plants seeds for the experiment. He placed the seed and sandy soil in 20 different
bottles that were then buried around campus. At pre-specified intervals, one of the bottles was unearthed, the
seeds planted, and their vitality documented. The last batch of seeds, which were common weeds, was
unearthed in 2000. They were planted and allowed to grow in order to use them for experiments measuring
vitality of weeds.
There are still five bottles of seeds left --
The next one slated to be opened in 2020.
Beal’s constant field experimentation and his desire to engage in practical teaching has left lasting mark on the college’s campus. The W.J. Beal Garden is the most notable and beautiful example of this, however development of many of MSU’s natural areas link directly to Beal’s influence.
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