Irving Biodiversity Collection
K. C. Irving Environmental Science Centre, Acadia University
32 University Avenue, Wolfville, Nova Scotia B4P 2R6


Margaret Sibella Brown

M S Brown

A Nova Scotian Bryologist

At a time when women were not encouraged to pursue careers outside the home, Margaret Sibella Brown became an internationally respected and published bryologist. A Nova Scotia botanist, her writings in Bryology and her extensive collections of mosses and liverworts remain a testament to her knowledge and dedication in this field of Biology.


Margaret Sibella Brown, born on March 2, 1866 to Richard and Barbara Brown of Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia, shared her arrival into this world with sister Elizabeth. The twins were the eldest to three other siblings, Anne, Richard, and Lillian. Their father, Richard, was the general manager of Cape Breton's Sydney Coal Mines and the first elected mayor of Sydney Mines.

Educated at the Anglican School for Girls in Halifax and the Anglo-German Institute finishing school in Stuttgart, Germany (1883-84), Margaret continued her studies in London, receiving tutelage in French and china painting. She returned to Nova Scotia in 1885, and attended the Victoria School of Art and Design where she later served as directorate on the board and became an instrumental member of the education committee. In 1934, Margaret received an honorary diploma from the institution, recognizing her efforts to secure funds for the new campus, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.

Margaret also gave generously of her time in a variety of capacities to other organizations. She was a member of the Halifax Women's Council, St. Paul's Anglican Church, president of The Halifax Floral Society of Nova Scotia, a life member of the Canadian Red Cross Society, the oldest living member of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science - until her death at age 95 - and a member of the Sullivant Moss Society, currently known as the American Bryological and Lichenological Society.

Margaret Brown's distinguished career and life came to an end in Halifax on Nov.15, 1961. She was buried in the family plot in Sydney Mines.

Bryological Career

Brown's microscope

Margaret's bryological career began under unusual circumstances during World War I while in the position of honorary secretary of the Halifax Branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society. Dr. Robert Thomson of the University of Toronto asked Margaret to organize the Nova Scotia contribution to the collection of Sphagnum moss for use in the production of field dressings and ambulance mattress stuffing. This experience rekindled a previous interest in botany, which at war's end, she was able to pursue in the more specific area of Bryology. Margaret not only scoured Nova Scotia for specimens but also collected samples throughout Canada including the Bruce Peninsula, Ontario and the Selkirk Mountains in British Colombia. Her scientific expeditions also led her to Spain, the French Riviera, and Jamaica where she often wintered.

Margaret mentored with botanist Dr. Nathaniel L. Britton and his wife, bryologist Elizabeth G. Britton, founders of the New York Botanical Gardens. As Mrs. Britton's assistant, Margaret traveled with them on various expeditions, including one to Puerto Rico and Trinidad in 1922. Margaret also organized a collecting trip for the Britton's to Cape Breton. Over nearly a life time of dedication to her "hobby", as she called it, she corresponded and exchange moss collections with many eminent bryologists across the globe.

In March 1932, Miss Brown published her first paper in The Bryologist, in which she described a new species of moss, Entosthodon neoscoticus M.S. Brown, collected from rocks at Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia. Her most comprehensive work is the "Liverworts and Mosses of Nova Scotia" in which she documents 127 hepatics and 367 mosses for the province (Proceedings of The Nova Scotian Institute of Science, 1936, Vol. 19, pt. 2, pp.161-198). Six more publications followed in The Bryologist. One article is entitled, "The Mosses from Syria" and is based on material collected there and given to her by W.B. Evans. Most of her field work and publishing was done between 1922 and 1951 when she was between the ages of 56 and 85!

An early recycler, Miss Brown's moss collection envelopes paint a social history of her life. She packaged specimens in household papers and envelopes - old letters, stock and bond advertisements, reports, a property tax bill for her house at 36 Kent St. in Halifax, and even church donation envelopes. Specimens were stored in Shoe and Moir chocolate boxes, each carefully annotated in her distinctive, squarish handwriting.

In 1950, encouraged by her student John Erskine, Margaret donated her bryophyte collection to Acadia University. In recognition of the significance of her gift, on May 16th of that same year, Acadia conferred an Honorary MA upon Margaret, who was in her 84th year. Never having sought a college degree, she resolutely declined Acadia's offer of an honorary PhD, accepting the MA instead. Mr. Erskine wrote of Margaret's influence on the botanical community of Nova Scotia in An Introductory Moss Flora of Nova Scotia (1968) stating, "During the next twenty five years [ca. 1922-1951] Miss Margaret S. Brown carried on the work [the study of Nova Scotia mosses], spending her summers in many parts of the province, and anyone who has learned anything about mosses in this quarter-century owes much to her knowledge and kindness."

Although modest at all times about her life long study of bryophytes, without a doubt Margaret remains and will continue to be a role model and inspiration to all present-day and future botanists in Nova Scotia.

Margaret S. Brown Collections

Specimen Envelope

The Margaret S. Brown collection at the E.C. Smith Herbarium consists of 1779 mosses, 858 hepatics and 53 lichens. Margaret's specimens are also deposited at the British Museum, Kew Gardens, New York Botanical Gardens, Dalhousie University (flowers and grasses), the New Brunswick Museum, the Nova Scotia Museum and the Devonian Botanical Garden at the University of Alberta.


A joint publication of the E.C. Smith Herbarium, K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre, Acadia University, and the Applied Geomatics Research Group (AGRG), Centre of Geographic Sciences, Middleton Campus of NSCC.

Prepared for the Bryophyte Workshop, July 3-5, 2005.

This article was authored by Jean Timpa. We are very grateful to Karla Kuklis, Amy James and Shawna Singleton for assistance with research, literary style and design.


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