The University of Chicago opened in 1892 as an institution strongly committed to faculty research and graduate training. William Rainey Harper, the university's brilliant young president, recruited a remarkable group of scholars and scientists to be members of the first faculty. Eight of the initial group of professors were former college or university presidents, and another, Albert A. Michelson, was the first American to win the Nobel prize in physics.
The University of Chicago's leading role in scientific research was strengthened in 1894, when Harper appointed John Merle Coulter (1851-1928) to lead the newly established Department of Botany. Coulter was a leading American botanist and a friend of Asa Gray (1810-1888), the famed Harvard botanist whose Manual of Botany and other texts dominated plant science in the United States. Coulter had founded the Botanical Gazette nearly twenty years earlier, and he brought the editorship of the professional journal with him to his new position. In 1896, botanical research at the University of Chicago was further enhanced with the erection of the Hull Biological Laboratories. This complex of four buildings included the Botany Building, which housed classrooms, labs, and a rooftop greenhouse, and Botany Pond, an adjacent outdoor plant study facility.
The University of Chicago Department of Botany quickly grew to become one of modern botany's most influential centers of research and teaching. By the 1930s, the roster of notable researchers serving on the Botany faculty included Henry C. Cowles and George D. Fuller in ecology, Charles J. Chamberlin in plant morphology, Merle C. Coulter in plant genetics, Adolf C. Noe in paleobotany, and Charles Barnes, William Crocker, and Charles A. Shull in plant physiology. The Botanical Gazette, published under the direction of an editorial board drawn from the department's faculty, was American botany's leading journal, and national university evaluations such as the Hughes Report of 1925 ranked the Department of Botany first among its academic peers.