J. K. Small

Dr. John Kunkel Small: Explorer of old Florida

By Marianne Swan

The Arboretum Committee
Members of the Arboretum Committee, Miami, 1928. (L-R): J. K. Small, H. H. Hume, H. Nehrling, D. Fairchild, T. L. Meade. Photographer unknown.
Hattie Bauer Hammock
The result of land clearing near Hattie Bauer Hammock: pine trees pulled out by the roots and piled up for burning. January 1916. J. K. Small. Archives/FTBG..
Family of
The family of "Doctor" Tommy Jimmy at their camp west of Kendall. November 1916. J.K. Small. Archives/FTBG.
Collecting orchids and bromeliads
"A carload of orchids and bromeliads taken from a hammock in Dade County. July 1915. J.K. Small. Archives/FTBG.

"Enthralled by South Florida's unique environment, he was among the first to sound the alarm about its rapid disappearance."

David Fairchild was a master of networking decades before the term was coined.  His pocket notebooks were filled with the names, addresses, occupations, and special interests of hundreds of people from all walks of life.  Naturally, a great number were scientists and plant explorers who shared Fairchild’s passion for the natural world.   It is clear from Fairchild’s own publications, correspondence, and personal notes that communicating and consulting with those he met socially or through work or travel was essential to his quest for knowledge.

One of Dr. Fairchild’s correspondents also shared a particular interest in South Florida.  John Kunkel Small (1869–1938) was a taxonomist and, like Fairchild, an avid botanical explorer.  Born in Pennsylvania and educated at Franklin and Marshall College, Small furthered his studies in botany and received his doctorate from Columbia University.  In 1898 he became the first Curator of Museums at the New York Botanical Garden, continuing in that position until 1934.  Although he resided in New York City, Kunkel traveled extensively throughout the southeastern United States, often with his wife and four children in tow.  He was so taken with the singular nature of Florida on his first trip in 1901 that he soon returned.  These early explorations were assiduously documented, both in words and photographs.  But Small’s later explorations, especially those in the 1920s, caused him great concern.  He recognized that the pristine Florida he had first observed was rapidly being lost to development.  The railroad and accompanying land boom had come, altering the landscape at an alarming rate.

The Archive of FTBG is fortunate to include a body of Small’s works. The J. K. Small Collection contains more than 740 of Small’s photographs, taken between 1913 and 1928, and 22 original manuscripts, many chronicling his explorations in the area that is now Miami-Dade County and Everglades National Park.  There are also a number of letters Small wrote to his benefactor, Charles Deering.  Many of these letters contain instructions and advice on plants to be included in the landscape of the Deering Estate at Cutler.

 While Small’s concentration on taxonomy differed from Fairchild’s main goal of improving agricultural stock and practices, they shared some interesting similarities.  Both traveled extensively on expeditions, often accompanied by their wives and children; both were keenly interested in the indigenous peoples they met in their travels; and both possessed a heartfelt interest and concern for South Florida and the Everglades.

Small’s photographs provide a particular view of the flora, topography, and life in South Florida in the early part of the twentieth century.  His prescient concern for the preservation of the unique nature of South Florida is well documented in his book From Eden to Sahara – Florida's Tragedy. Published in 1929, it contains a stark warning of the environmental consequences of draining Florida's wetlands and overdevelopment.  Through these early photographs and writings, John K. Small was setting the stage for the movement that would culminate in the establishment of Everglades National Park. 

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Unless otherwise stated, all photographs on this page property of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
Please contact the Archivist for permission to use or reproduce photographs.

Please contact:
Nancy Korber
Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden Center for Tropical Plant Conservation
11935 Old Cutler Road
Miami, Florida 33156 USA
tel. 305/667-1651, ext. 3424
fax 305/665-8032