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Spotlight on the Overlease Collection

by Jesse Brody on 2017-05-25T13:00:00-04:00 in Archives, Education, Environmental Science, History, Biology

The Overlease Collection consists of the papers of William Roy Overlease (1925-2007), who was a professor at West Chester from 1963 to 1986. It contains a considerable amount of information on the history and development of the Darlington Herbarium, a gift to West Chester from the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Science in the 1870s. To the left you can see the Cabinet's catalog of their plant specimens, dated 1834. There are also documents Overlease created to help navigate the Herbarium. There is biographical information about William Darlington (1782-1863), prominent botanist, founding member of the Cabinet, and author of Flora Cestrica, a listing of plants found in Chester County – originally published in 1837 and updated in 1853. Below, you can see both editions. 

Overlease and his wife Edith pursued many research projects together, both in the West Chester area and elsewhere, and the collection contains raw data and drafts for scholarly publications from these projects. There is correspondence and other material relating to the fight for the Gordon Natural Area, and materials relating to courses that Overlease taught at West Chester. Additionally, it contains biographical information about Overlease.

William Roy Overlease was a botanist, ornithologist, ecologist, historian, and teacher who was committed to science education throughout his career. Among many other accomplishments, he was in large part responsible for the establishment of the Robert B. Gordon Natural Area for Environmental Studies on West Chester’s South Campus, and he was Curator of the Darlington Herbarium and the College Science Museum.

Overlease was born and grew up in Elkhart, Indiana. He attended Michigan State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Forestry, a five year professional degree, in 1950, and an MS in Conservation in 1952. These were early days for academic programs in this field, and Overlease was required to get special permission from the graduate council of the university in order to pursue his MS. He also earned a Secondary Education Teaching Certificate in 1950, demonstrating his dedication to science education from the start of his career.

From 1952 to 1957, Overlease worked for the Interpretative Program of the Indiana Department of Conservation, Division of State Parks, as the only full-time state park naturalist in the Midwest (the rest were hired seasonally or on a part-time basis on weekends). As such, he had broad responsibilities for developing educational programming for state parks throughout Indiana.

During this time, he met Edith Dymond at Turkey Run State Park, Indiana and they married there in 1955. They were a devoted couple and collaborated on all of William’s field work and publications.

Overlease returned to Michigan State University, to pursue a PhD in Botany and Plant Pathology, which he completed in 1964.

In 1963, he began working at West Chester, becoming a full professor in 1967. Some of the courses he taught were Ecology, Plant Taxonomy, Field Botany, Human Ecology, World Ecosystems, and undergraduate and graduate seminars, as well as summer mini-courses. To the right, you can see a note which Bonnie Lauer, a former student, sent to Overlease years after she graduated, expressing her gratitude. 

One of his greatest accomplishments was to establish the Gordon natural Area at the South Campus as a permanent natural laboratory to study plants and animals. The struggle began the year after he began working at West Chester, when he found out that the Physical Education Department wanted to develop 45 acres of forest on the South Campus: “Beginning in 1964, I began to request and negotiate with the Physical Education Department to preserve some of the forest and wild land owned by the college on South Campus for ecological studies. After several years of effort, a hearing was obtained with the board of trustees but the project was turned down. With the change in national attitude toward ecology in the early 1970s a new effort was made.” The second time the proposal went before the board of trustees, it was approved and on November 10, 1973, the Robert B. Gordon Natural Area for Environmental Studies was dedicated.

Overlease’s curation of the Darlington Herbarium was another important contribution to West Chester. The Herbarium originally belonged to the Chester County Cabinet of Natural Science, but when its membership dwindled in the later nineteenth century, the Cabinet donated all of its 17,000 plant specimens to West Chester. The specimens were mostly collected between 1828 and 1850, from all over the world: throughout North America, Siberia, South Africa, Australia, Jamaica, the British Isles, the European Continent, and Egypt are all represented.

Over the years, various faculty members and students from the Science Department had ensured the preservation and organization of the specimens. In 1965, Overlease overhauled the cataloging system, rearranging the collection alphabetically by family and alphabetically be genus within each family. A card catalog reflecting this new organization system was created over five years. Overlease also replaced the wooden cabinets the specimens had been stored in for decades with metal cabinets that offered the specimens much more protection. 



Holt, Jack. 2011. “William R. Overlease (1925-2007).” Bartonia 65: 115-116. Accessed May 24, 2017.

Gordon, Robert B. “The William Darlington Herbarium of the West Chester State College.” [circa 1950s].

Overlease Collection, Box 1, Folder 2.

Overlease, William R. “A Short History of the William Darlington Herbarium.” 1989. Folder 1, Box 1,

Overlease. Special Collections, West Chester University Libraries.

Overlease, William R. [Curriculum Vitae]. [Circa 1983]. “Personal Data” folder, Overleaseb Collection.

Special Collections, West Chester University Libraries. 

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