Lawrence Newcomb: Botanist, Conservationist, and a Founder of NepRWA

By Chris Hirsch, Environmental Scientist

Anniversaries are the perfect time to reflect on one’s past. This year is NepRWA’s 50th anniversary so we’ve been dusting off the old newspaper clippings, meeting minutes, and event flyers to reflect upon how far we’ve come as an organization, a community, and as a river. Like a river, this endeavor has taken us around some surprising bends and bows as we continue to uncover our past. One such surprise was rediscovering our most famous founder, Lawrence Newcomb.

Newcomb’s popular field guide

Bringing Botany to the Masses

Anyone who has dabbled in botany in New England, or really most places east of the Mississippi, has likely been recommended a copy of Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.

The guide was revolutionary when it was originally published in 1977 because of its “ingenious new key system” that was “based on the most easily seen features that make each species unique, features the untrained eye can distinguish” (pp. i, vii). Newcomb’s remains one of, if not the most, popular field guides for amateur and professional botanists alike.

In his own words, Lawrence wanted to devise a system that would, “take the guesswork out of wildflower identification for the nature lover with no formal botanical training.” (pp. viii) This was more than just a goal he had for his field guide, but it was also a goal he pursued in his everyday life. Lawrence regularly shared his love of wildflowers with the general public through the botanical walks he led at the Moose Hill Wildlife Sanctuary, Borderland State Park, the Blue Hills Reservation, and the Garden in the Woods.

He was very active with Friends of Moose Hill, The New England Wildflower Society, and founded the Friends of Borderland State Park. On September 26, 1982 , the New England Wildflower Society recognized Lawrence Newcomb’s contributions to the field of botany by naming the Lawrence Newcomb Library at the Garden in the Woods in his honor.

Lawrence Newcomb

‘Larry’ Newcomb of Sharon

Lawrence, or Larry as he was known to his friends and colleagues, is said to have been a soft-spoken and kind man who lived much of his life in Sharon. He and his family resided at 90 Brook Road in the converted former laboratory of another notable Sharon resident Dr. Joseph A. Cushman.

Dr. Cushman was a famous geologist who pioneered the field of micropaleontology, the study of ancient microscopic organisms. Many of his works can be found at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and there is even a ridge on the moon with his namesake. If the walls of that home could talk I’m sure they would have a fascinating story to tell.

In Sharon, Larry Newcomb was a prominent conservationist and community organizer. He was on the Sharon Conservation Commission for 16 years, where he was able to purchase and preserve hundreds of acres of conservation land to protect Lake Massapoag, Beaver Brook, Massapoag Brook, and the Canoe River.

As the Conservation Commission chairman, Larry Newcomb steadfastly advocated for the protection of wetlands against development and industry, and in 1972 he led a successful campaign to rezone sensitive areas of town, near Old Post Road, from light industrial to residential. In town meeting he testified that, “a good part of the property is not suitable for industry and the commission would oppose filling the wetlands.” This rezoning effectively blocked the development of additional sources of industrial pollution that would harm the Neponset River.

In the early 1970’s, Newcomb co-organized the “Sharon Thing”, a week of conservation activities centered on a new holiday called Earth Day. The Sharon Thing involved road side cleanups, students creating conservation themed displays for the community center, girl and boy scout troops cleaning trails and planting trees, school presentations put on by the high school ecology club, door-to-door collection of paper and glass for recycling, among several other activities that got the people of Sharon engaged in conservation.

Welcome Sign at Borderland State Park

Lawrence and the Founding of NepRWA

In 1967, spurred on by the proposed expansion of I-95 to go directly through the last intact portion of the Fowl Meadow, Larry joined eight other Conservation Commissioners from the Neponset Watershed (Harry Fraser, Hanna Bigelow, Henry Lyman, Frank Chase, Lawrence Newcomb, Nicholas DeSalvo, Charles Strumski, Edgar Grout, and Bettina S. Cottrell) to create the Neponset Conservation Association.That organization would later become the Neponset River Watershed Association.

Ultimately, they were successful in protecting one of the best wetland resources in eastern Massachusetts from becoming a highway to Boston, and they paved the way for all of the great success NepRWA has had over the past 50 years.

While this is undoubtedly a limited and incomplete recounting of his conservation accomplishments, Lawrence Newcomb’s life serves as an inspiration to nature lovers everywhere.

If you have a story or memory about Larry, we would love to hear it. Please share it in the comment section below or email Chris Hirsch;

4 responses to “Lawrence Newcomb: Botanist, Conservationist, and a Founder of NepRWA”

  1. Vasha says:

    Mr. Newcomb died in 1981 at the age of 70. I too value his guide extremely (still)!

  2. Steven Levine says:

    I’ve depended on his field guide for about 45 years. I assume he died sometime within this period, but I can find little about him. How can someone so influential have disappeared without a trace?

  3. Mark A. Bowman says:

    As a wildflower enthusiast, I am a tremendous fan of his book and am impressed with your explanation of his conservation legacy. Could you possibly edit this summary to include more of his biography? Where was he from? What was his profession? How did he happen to take interest in wildlife conservation? Many thanks for your summary!

  4. I’ve never met Larry but have come to admire his Wildflower Guide. I live in Wilmington, Delaware and am a student in the Delaware Nature Society’s Naturalist Certification program.
    The section on wildflowers was built around the use of Larry’s guide. I find it amazing that he was able to develop a guide that uses a simple approach to what seems a complex problem. His ability to organize it an work with an illustrator to provide pictures is wonderful
    I haven’t been able to find any other information about Larry. It he’s still alive please say thank you, if not he clearly has my admiration.

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