Recently Penny See came to visit me here at the museum to show me her mother’s seed collection. My interest was piqued when she told me about her mother, Janet Emma Gregory. This is one of those situations where all my favorite things collided. Anything having to do with botanical history, women in science or Pennsylvania will catch my attention. The story I was told captures all of those and more. I asked Penny to tell me about her mother in her own words. Here is what Penny wrote for me.
Penny See with her mother’s seed collection.
My mother, Janet Emma Gregory, always had a special place in her heart for plants. She used to say, “My hands are always dirty, but my heart is always happy.” She was born in Surrey, England on April 21st, 1943. Her Father, Thomas Gregory, was awarded by the British Royal Horticulture Society for his accomplishments in Floral Landscape Design.
I recall all sorts of stories that she shared about her life and growing up in England with all the lush gardens. One of my favorites was about a Laburnum or Golden Chain Tree. An elderly man that lived two doors down from them had a large one growing in his garden. One day, he had decided to cut it down, but my Mother walked over and begged him to spare it. He obliged and allowed her to come and spend time with the tree whenever she liked, she took him up on the invitation often. When they moved to the United States in 1972 she planted one of her own and I too, have one growing in my yard now.
As a young teen, she attended Nonsuch County School for Girls, a selective specialist science school in the London borough of Sutton. In those days, boys and girls were schooled separately and each school had focused studies for the students, collegiately training them for careers beginning at a young age. Following in her father’s footsteps, Janet chose to focus her time at Nonsuch studying Botany and Latin.
Upon leaving school, she was employed at Carter’s Tested Seeds of Raynes Park in Southwest London. Carter’s was a premier seed supply company renowned for their quality standards with a goal of providing unadulterated seeds to large companies, farmers, and the everyday gardener. Rising to fame with the hybridization of the Sweet Pea, Carter’s quickly gained national respect.
Photo of lantern slide showing the grass plots at Carters Tested Seeds.
Janet’s focus at Carter’s was creating new grasses, from ornamental and specialty to everyday grasses like you’d find in your yard. As the hybrids were created, they would plant samples in long strips in the gardens outside of Raynes Park. Interested customers could come and choose the variety that suited their purposes best. To her delight, one of the grasses she created was chosen to be used on the courts at Wimbledon and they showed their appreciation by offering her a lifelong invitation to attend the Wimbledon matches.
Janet Gregory working with seeds at Carters Tested Seeds.
During her employment at Carter’s she created a very impressive collection of seeds. Everything from English flowers and weeds, to vegetables and trees, she meticulously gathered, packaged, labelled, and organized them alphabetically and by genus. I have fond memories of browsing through them as a kid and when she passed, she left them to me. It’s this seed collection that brought me to The Carnegie Museum of Natural History to meet with Bonnie Isaac.
So back to the original question. What does Pittsburgh have to do with the Wimbledon tennis tournament?
It turns out, that the woman who created the grass mix used on the courts has family right here in Pittsburgh!
Seed collection video by Sarah C. Williams.
Bonnie Isaac is the Collection Manager in the Section of Botany. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.