An official website of the United States government.

The .gov means it’s official.
Federal government websites always use a .gov or .mil domain. Before sharing sensitive information online, make sure you’re on a .gov or .mil site by inspecting your browser’s address (or “location”) bar.

This site is also protected by an SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate that’s been signed by the U.S. government. The https:// means all transmitted data is encrypted — in other words, any information or browsing history that you provide is transmitted securely.

Home / Guide Collections / Isabel Shipley Cunningham Collection on Howard Scott Gentry

Isabel Shipley Cunningham Collection on Howard Scott Gentry

Isabel Shipley Cunningham Collection on Howard Scott Gentry Introduction

The Isabel Shipley Cunningham Collection on Howard Scott Gentry spans the years 1940 to 1995. The collection is one-half of a linear foot and occupies one box. Cunningham collected the documents to write several articles about Gentry. Cunningham donated the materials to the National Agricultural Library Special Collections in April 2006 with Elizabeth Ley, former head of the Gardens Unit and former plant records keeper at the United States National Arboretum, as the intermediary. The materials are in good condition and may be used without restrictions. The collection was arranged and described by Amber Thiele, Chesapeake Information and Research Library Alliance (CIRLA) fellow, in 2006.


Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library (NAL) acquires, arranges, describes, preserves and makes available rare materials significant to the history of agriculture. Materials are obtained through donation or active collection in accordance with the established Special Collections collection development policy. Special Collections staff organize and describe materials according to archival principles and create descriptions and indexes to enhance access. Staff do not edit or otherwise modify the original materials. The views expressed in the collections do not necessarily reflect the policies of the National Agricultural Library or the United States Department of Agriculture.

Biographical Sketch

December 10, 1903: Born in Temecula, California

1931: Completed bachelor's degree in vertebrate zoology from University of California at Berkeley

1933:Traveled on first expedition in Yaqui country (Sonora-Chihuahua, Mexico) to fulfill specimen orders for plants, insects, and animals solicited from various institutions

1934: Worked as a fruit picker at two dollars an hour to earn start-up money for another expedition into Mexico

1934: Led expedition into Indian barranca country (Mexico) to fulfill $3000 in orders for plants, insects, animals, and fossils solicited from various institutions

1935: Married Marie Ann Cech

1934-1939: Spent over twenty-seven months in Rio Mayo country collecting, researching, and writing often accompanied by his wife and used the Desert Research Laboratory as his United States headquarters

1940s: Founded the Gentry Experimental Farm in Murrieta, California, which specializes in plants that use little water and unusual cut flowers

1942: Published first book Rio Mayo Plants of Sonora-Chihuahua

1942-1945: Searched for rubber substitutes with potential domestic growth for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rubber Office

1946-1950: Conducted research as a botanist at the Allen Hancock Foundation, University of Southern California in Los Angeles

1947: Earned a Ph.D. in botany from the University of Michigan

1950-1951: Received a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship

1950-1971: Served as a plant collector for the New Crops Research Branch (USDA), conducting 18 expeditions in 24 countries

1953-1954: Joined expeditions into Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Iran

1959: Awarded a USDA Superior Service Award for work towards discovering Gentrogenin, a cortisone precursor compound, which was later used to treat heart disease

1961-1964: Led expedition in Mexico for medicinal plants in connection with the USDA cancer program

1962: Awarded a Sustained Outstanding Performance Award from the USDA

1966: Awarded a Meyer Medal for distinguished service in plant introductions

1970: Operated the Gentry Experimental Farm at Murrieta, California

1972: Conducted research as a botanist at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona

1974: Elected President of the Society for Economic Botany

1985: Became the Research Director for the Desert Botanical Garden

1987: Retired from the Desert Botanical Garden

May 12, 1990: Awarded an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Arizona

May 14, 1990: Attended the dedication of the H.S. Gentry Center for Botanical Resources in Mesa, Arizona

April 1, 1993: Died at age 89 in Tucson, Arizona from chronic lung disease and buried at a family farm in Murrieta, California

Scope and Content Note

This collection consists of biographical information about Howard Scott Gentry, a botanist and plant explorer. The collection is half of a linear foot and ranges in date from 1940-1995 with bulk dates of 1984-1993. Isabel Shipley Cunningham collected the materials before and after writing a series of articles on Gentry as a plant explorer. The materials are in good condition and may be used without restrictions. The bulk of the collection highlights Gentry's professional work through articles, documents, correspondence, photographs, and personal accounts from friends, co-workers, and family. The collection is arranged into four series: Correspondence, Documents, Photographs, and Articles.

Series Description

Series I. Correspondence. 1954-1995. 13 folders.

This series includes correspondence to Isabel Shipley Cunningham from Howard Scott Gentry, his co-workers, his friends, and his family, which Cunningham requested or received for her articles. A few letters are from Gentry to other correspondents. The correspondence highlights biographical information on Gentry and his work. Cunningham's notes from two telephone conservations with Gentry's wife and daughter are also included. Cunningham annotated many of the letters. The series is arranged into three subseries: Correspondence of Howard Scott Gentry, Correspondence with Isabel Shipley Cunningham, and Isabel Shipley Cunningham's telephone notes.

  • Subseries I.A. Correspondence of Howard Scott Gentry. 1986-1993.
  • This subseries includes the correspondence from and to Gentry with Isabel Shipley Cunningham, Robert A. Bye, and George A. White. The letters to Cunningham discusses her writings and some personal reflections on his work. Gentry suggest the creation of a World Germplasm Bank and Center in Tepoztlan, Morelos, Mexico to Bye. White discusses changes and research at United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that occurred after Gentry retired. The subseries is arranged chronologically. Several copies of letters from Gentry are included in Subseries I.B. Correspondence with Isabel Shipley Cunningham. The letters are included in that subseries because Gentry's family and friends included them in the letters they sent to Cunningham.

  • Subseries I.B. Correspondence with Isabel Shipley Cunningham. 1954-1995.
  • Gentry's family, friends, and co-workers wrote to Cunningham in response to her articles and requests for information. The letters include biographical information and information about Gentry's work. The copies of letters from Gentry were included with correspondence to Cunningham from his family and friends. These items refer to analyzing Simmondsia chinensis, locations of jojoba near San Diego with a map, and a letter to his daughter during his expedition in Navojoa, Sonora, Mexico. The subseries is arranged chronologically.

  • Subseries I.C. Isabel Shipley Cunningham's Telephone Notes. n.d.
  • Cunningham's notes refer to telephone conversations she had with Gentry's daughter, Linnea, and his wife, Marie. The notes contain biographical information on Gentry. The subseries is arranged alphabetically.

Series II. Professional Documents. 1950-1990. 6 folders.

Included in this series are professional papers pertaining to Gentry. This includes a recommendation for an honorary degree from the University of Arizona, which Gentry received in 1990. Other documents consists of a retirement summary, an United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) evaluation, a list of his plant collecting expeditions, his material vitae, and an announcement with a program from the dedication of the H.S. Gentry Center for Desert Botanical Resources. Cunningham annotated many items. The series is arranged chronologically.

Series III. Photographs. 1950-1990. 10 folders.

This series includes photographs of Gentry. The photographs show Gentry in an early passport photograph, in Mexico with an Agave atrovirens, and in California on a horse. Other photographs include one used for the dedication of the H.S. Gentry Center for Desert Botanical Resources and one of a group at the 1985 Symposium on the Genus Agave. Most of the photographs are reproductions from publications. Photographs of Jojoba seeds and plants are also included. The series is arranged chronologically.

Series IV. Articles. 1940-1995. 21 folders.

The articles within this series include drafts and final versions of Cunningham's articles about Gentry. The published articles and journal covers by Gentry cover his work. Other published articles contain biographical information about Gentry, including several obituaries. Most of the articles are photocopies. Cunningham annotated some of the articles. The articles are arranged into three subseries: Articles by Howard Scott Gentry, Articles by Isabel Shipley Cunningham, and Articles about Howard Scott Gentry.

  • Subseries IV.A. Articles by Howard Scott Gentry. 1940-1995.
  • This subseries contains articles that were written by Gentry. They cover his work including the Desert Research Laboratory, Gum Tragacanth in Iran, desert plants, red squill (Urginea maritima, Liliaceae), and various Mexican cultures. One folder includes photocopies of journal covers that include Gentry's articles. The Journal of the Southwest includes several articles written by Gentry and by other authors that mention his work, discuss the author's expeditions with Gentry, and a written oral history about Gentry. The majority of the articles are photocopies. This subseries is arranged chronologically.

  • Subseries IV.B. Articles by Isabel Shipley Cunningham. 1987-1994.
  • This subseries includes drafts, final versions, and published articles that Cunningham wrote. The articles cover biographical information about Gentry and his work particularly with wild beans, Agave and other plants. A five and a quarter inch floppy computer disc which contains Cunningham's article, published in Economic Botany, was removed to the digital archive, but a print out of the computer file remains. The subseries is arranged chronologically.

  • Subseries IV.C. Articles about Howard Scott Gentry. 1979-1993.
  • The articles cover biographical information about Gentry and his work written by authors other than Gentry or Cunningham. Some of the articles are obituaries, memorials, or biographies for programs. Many of the articles are photocopies, drafts, or unpublished. This subseries is arranged chronologically.


Cunningham, Isabel S. "Howard Scott Gentry: agriculture's renaissance man." Diversity 11 (1987): 23-24.

Erickson, Jim. "Botanist, agave expert Howard S. Gentry dies." The Arizona Daily Star (April 3, 1993).

"Famed plant researcher Howard Gentry at age 89" The Press Enterprise (April 8, 1993).

Hadley, Diana. "'Listening to my mind': Howard Scott Gentry's Recollections of the Rio Mayo." Journal of the Southwest 37 no. 2 (1995): 178-245.

Pierce, Alison. "The Mexican Apprenticeship: an authority on century plants became so while surviving rebellious Yaquis, bushwhackers and suspicious opium growers." Arizona(February 11, 1979): 40-46.

"Plant explorer honored by UA, industry and friends." Agri-News 9, no. 2 (July 1990).

Verbiscar, Anthony J. "Howard Scott Gentry December 10, 1903-April 1, 1993." Economic Botany 47, No.. 3 (1993).

Walters, James E. "Seeking answers in the desert." Saturday Magazine of the Scottsdale Daily Progress (March 2, 1985): 6-7.