Scientists decry closure of Duke’s herbarium

Duke University is closing its herbarium, which is among the largest herbaria in the country, housing more than 825,000 plant species.

The decision comes amid budget cuts and staff shortages, according to Medriva, a medical news website.

“The writing has been on the wall,” Kathleen Pryer, director of the herbarium, said in an email. She added that an article published in DukeMag in December, which detailed the century-old herbarium’s need for more space, “was the tipping point.”

Pryer said that after the article was published, a donor contacted her with a $3 million proposal and offered to personally contribute the first $1 million. “That is when Duke showed its true hand,” she said. “Rather than use that as a springboard, they told us to shut down.”

Susan Alberts, dean of Duke’s natural sciences departments, confirmed the shutdown in an email to the herbarium’s staff Tuesday.

“We have carefully considered the requirements to maintain it in the manner in which it should be maintained, which would include multiple endowed faculty and staff lines as well as state of the art facilities,” Alberts said. “We have concluded that because of this large set of needed resources, it’s in the best interests of both Duke and the herbarium to find a new home or homes for these collections.”

While Alberts acknowledged the herbarium’s closure is “a loss” for Duke and the scientists who operated it, she said, “We do see it as a net positive in the long run for the collection and that is an important consideration.”

Alberts said the majority of the collection will be moved over the next two to three years and she has asked the staff to begin the process of finding new homes for the plants.

Pryer said she’d be open to crowdfunding in attempt to save the herbarium and that “Perhaps a miracle could happen?”

And she’s not the only who wants to save it. By Wednesday, news of the closure had stirred up the larger scientific community, and some are calling for a reversal of the decision to close.

“When collections like this close, it endangers others, especially at smaller institutions. This could be very bad, if other universities follow suit,” Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor of paleoecology and plant ecology at the University of Maine, posted on X Wednesday.

“Duke is claiming they don’t have the resources to support this herbarium, despite their $11 billion endowment … I’m not sure if this decision can still be reversed, but we should not allow this to go down quietly. Biodiversity must not be defunded!”

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