Quarterman Was More Than a Biology Professor and Ecologist

By Jonathan Ertelt, MEd’99
Photo of Elsie Quarterman
Elsie Quarterman in the Middle Tennessee cedar glades, 1948


In every piece written about Elsie Quarterman following her death at age 103 in early June, major space was devoted to the Middle Tennessee cedar glade ecosystem where much of her work was focused. The contributions of Quarterman and her graduate students to our understanding of this ecosystem, its ongoing presence, and the comeback of the critically endangered Tennessee coneflower are all part of her well-deserved legacy.

Photo of a Tennessee coneflower

But Quarterman, Vanderbilt professor of biology, emerita, one of the country’s first prominent female ecologists, was not only out on the cedar glades. I remember her from my nine years at Cheekwood Botanical Garden in Nashville beginning in the late 1970s. By then she was no longer acting director, but she was still there a lot. She helped with tours to the cedar glades, but also was present any time the Herb Society had functions there and was active in the Tennessee Gesneriad Society, a group focused on the largely tropical family best known for African violets.

I served with Elsie on the board of the Tennessee Environmental Council for several years. I remember traveling across the state with her, talking about the “DYCs” (damned yellow composites) among other roadside flora as we drove along, an activity I now share with my family when we drive.

Elsie Quarterman was more than a biology professor and the ecologist who heralded the cedar glades and the rediscovery of Echinacea tennessensis. She enabled many students and others through the many communities in which she participated to view the world differently—to see the plants and plant communities and to recognize the specialness of these plants and their habitats, their ecosystems.

Her legacy includes the coneflower and the cedar glades of Middle Tennessee, without a doubt. But her real legacy is much larger. Students of all ages are thankful that her appreciation of the plant kingdom and the world around her touched them and made their lives richer.

Jonathan Ertelt is manager of Vanderbilt’s research greenhouses in the Department of Biological Sciences.

Watch a video about Quarterman: