Herbarium Collections Manager Mark Allen Wetter retires after 39 years of service

By Mary Ann Feist

Mark Wetter with Mary Ann Feist and Ken Cameron
Mary Ann Feist (WIS Senior Academic Curator), Mark Wetter (WIS Collections Manager), and Prof. Ken Cameron (WIS Director)

On February 1, 2024, Mark Wetter retired from the Wisconsin State Herbarium (WIS) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after 39 years of service. The Botany Department held a gathering with cake and champagne to honor his service and departure. An outpouring of graduate and undergraduate students, staff, volunteers, and faculty came out to wish him well.  Emeritus Curator Ted Cochrane commented that Mark was the glue that had held the herbarium together for the past 39 years. Curator Mary Ann Feist remarked that Mark was one of those most generous and kind people she had ever met, and that she would often tell people that Mark was the “nice one” in the herbarium. Mark is generous to a fault and never hesitates to help people in any way that he can. He has a special rapport with the volunteers and the undergraduate students and creates a welcoming environment for anyone who comes to the herbarium to visit or do work. Mark is also well-known for his service to the Botany Department, especially his many years on the Social Committee, where he contributed his famous (and top-secret) holiday punch to all departmental parties.

Mark began working at the Herbarium on February 1, 1985, after a chance meeting with then Director Hugh Iltis at an American Institute of Biological Sciences Conference in Colorado. Without even a formal interview Iltis offered him the job and Mark moved to Madison sight unseen. Prior to this Mark was working as a Curatorial Assistant at the New York Botanical Garden’s Herbarium. Upon his arrival at WIS, Mark helped to get the first compactor system for the herbarium and, with Ted Cochrane, moved all the cabinets out of the herbarium so the compactor system could be installed, and then once the cabinets were installed on the compactor system, moved them back in again and rearranged the entire vascular plant collection!

During his first couple of decades at the herbarium, Mark did a great deal of traveling to assist with expeditions and collecting. He made at least five trips to Mexico, including one trip with Professor Bob Kowal that lasted for six weeks. He also traveled to Costa Rica for several weeks with Harvey Ballard, and to Kenya and Ecuador on other trips.

Mark was on the cutting edge of utilizing electronic resources in the herbarium. With Merle Black he created an early electronic loan system for the herbarium. After that, they created a database for specimen records which led to the publication of the Checklist of Wisconsin Flora (Wetter, et al 2001.). They then used this database to create the first version of the Online Flora of Wisconsin (WISFlora). This started as a simple electronic version of the checklist, but they soon added many new features such as distribution maps, species descriptions, and field photos. WISFlora was one of the first electronic floras of its kind anywhere!

Mark has remarked that the biggest change to come along while he was a Collections Manager was the digitization of herbarium specimens. Digitization includes not only databasing specimen records, but also georeferencing them, taking images, and most importantly making all of this available online to a worldwide audience. Mark was involved in the earliest efforts to do this. The first project to digitize specimens at WIS was funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (LAPI – Latin American Plant Initiative) and involved imaging type specimens from Latin America using an inverted flatbed scanner. This was followed by numerous TCNs (Thematic Collections Network) grants funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  These included, the Tritrophic TCN, which digitized herbarium specimens, the insects that fed on them, and the insects that parasitized those insects, the Lichen and Bryophyte TCN, the Great Lakes Invasives TCN, the Microfungi TCN, the Fern TCN, and most recently the Endless Forms TCN, which digitized “the most interesting plant specimens on earth” including orchids, cacti, and carnivorous plants. To date, over 750,000 of the Herbarium’s specimens are digitized, largely due to efforts led by Mark Wetter. This is roughly half of the estimated 1.4 million specimens currently at WIS.

Ken Cameron, Mary Ann Feist and Mark Wetter in the field
Ken Cameron, Mary Ann Feist and Mark Wetter in the field

Mark has been very involved in outreach for the herbarium including giving numerous tours for students and the public, including Botany classes, Science Expedition Days, and the Natural Resources Foundation. He has also represented the Herbarium at the Garden Expo and, for the last six years, has helped run the Wisconsin State Botanical Foray and to deal with the thousands of specimens collected during these events.

In 2021 Mark received the UW-Madison’s prestigious Judith S. Craig Distinguished Service Award. Recommenders for this award wrote, “Mark’s dedication to the University, the Department of Botany, and especially the students over the last [39] years, is inspiring,” “Mark is a very kind person and is the epitome of patience and good humor,” and “Mark’s effect on the University is varied and lasting and he deserves to be recognized for his many years of service.” Over his 39 years at the herbarium, Mark has trained countless students and staff, overseen the processing and digitization of tens of thousands of specimens, represented the herbarium and department in numerous outreach events, and facilitated the research of hundreds of individuals by sending out and receiving loans. The Wisconsin State Herbarium and the Department of Botany are truly better places due to his service!