Remembering Joel T. Fry (1957–2023)
Joel T. Fry
February 22, 1957–March 21, 2023
Acclaimed historian Joel T. Fry, the long-time curator at Bartram’s Garden, died at Pennsylvania Hospital on March 21, 2023, shortly after a diagnosis of lung cancer. He is survived by his siblings, James (Hai-Ping Cheng) of Florida, David (Lisa) of Illinois, and Ann (Kara Shannon) of Massachusetts, as well as his brother David’s children, David, Jared, and Marrah, and grandchildren, Dylan, Jordan, and Cora.
Beyond his family, his memory is cherished by the dozens of gardeners, historians, archaeologists, scientists, and colleagues, both here in Philadelphia and worldwide, who relied on Joel as an inexhaustible source of scholarly expertise, dry wit, and constant inspiration.
Raised in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, Joel was first introduced to archaeology, ecology, and historic research as a teenager, when he participated in an archaeological training course for high school students led by Jeff Kenyon, then the director of the education department at what is now known as the Penn Museum. The thrill of seeking and connecting with history, especially Philadelphia history, became a life-long vocation. Joel received degrees in Anthropology and American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, spending his summers on field research, archival cataloguing, and conservation for the Penn Museum and the Fairmount Water Works.
One stint for the Penn Museum in the early 1980s saw Joel supervising students in archaeological technique at Bartram’s Garden, then an underutilized public park and historic site on the banks of the Tidal Schuylkill River in Southwest Philadelphia. The Garden’s varied layers and kinds of history appealed to Joel’s limitless curiosity: the country’s oldest surviving botanical garden, its 18th-century house, outbuildings, and gardens had been designated a National Historic Landmark, but at the time the organization had limited capacity for historic research. Joel’s initial archaeological and archival research sparked his interest in the Garden, and after a short career as an archaeological and historical consultant for clients throughout Pennsylvania, he joined the staff of Bartram’s Garden in 1992 as curator and historian.
Through more than 30 years of scholarship, mentoring, and research, Joel was a beloved and revered resource for wide networks of historians, scientists, and garden enthusiasts. In his own work, he was especially known for his definitive writings and ongoing research on the botanical history and ecology of the Bartram’s Garden plant catalogue, particularly the Franklinia alatamaha, sometimes called the Franklin tree or just Franklinia, a large, summer-blooming shrub with showy, fragrant white flowers. Because the plant was apparently extinct in its native Georgia shortly after the Bartram family first collected its seeds in the 1770s, all current living Franklinia are descended from those once cultivated at Bartram’s Garden. Joel was particularly proud of a recent essay, “Bartram’s Tree: Franklinia alatamaha,” featured in The Attention of a Traveller (2022), examining the influence and legacy of William Bartram’s eighteenth-century account of his travels through what is now the southern U.S., including his first encounter with Franklinia. In addition to Joel’s Franklinia research, he extensively explored and documented the entirety of the historic Bartram plant collection, assembling a complete catalogue of the Garden’s plant holdings as of 1783.
Joel was also an in-demand lecturer, tour guide, panelist, and essayist on a wide range of topics connected to Philadelphia history, botany and garden history, archaeology and geology, and colonial history. In 2018, Joel was honored with the role of formally opening the Peter Collinson Heritage Garden at Mill Hill School in London. Other recent appearances and partnerships include conference presentations at the Bartram Trail Conference (2022 and 2019) and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (2014) as well as partnership with The Center for Art in Wood for the Bartram’s Boxes Remix exhibit (2014). As an outgrowth of his care for the John Bowman Bartram Special Collections Library at Bartram’s Garden, he also maintained sustained and detailed correspondence with noted scholars, writers, and historians, advising on such best sellers as Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Andrea Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners as well as on specialist works in many fields, including the history and ecology of daffodils, one of his favorite subjects.
Between these many marquee engagements were countless interactions when Joel tirelessly and meticulously shared his vast knowledge. He regularly led guided tours and offered lectures at Bartram’s Garden and nearby historic sites like Eden Cemetery and the Woodlands for everyone from local garden clubs to international tourists to curious neighbors, and he provided generous mentorship and guidance for undergraduate and graduate students focused on history, botany, and archival research. As the Garden’s public programming and capacity for historic interpretation expanded beginning in the 2010s, Joel was also a deft and thoughtful advisor on new research into the area’s Black history, led by historian Sharece Blakney, and initial forays into incorporating Traditional Ecological Knowledge, guided by Indigenous practices, into the site’s ecosystems management practices.
Perhaps most significant was Joel’s impact on the many colleagues and friends of Bartram’s Garden who relied upon him during his three-decade tenure. When Joel was first hospitalized in March 2023, notes, visits, and memories poured in from colleagues around the world and throughout the mid-Atlantic, representing such venerable institutions as the Yale Center for British Art, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Painshill Park Trust in the United Kingdom, the international Society for the History of Natural History, and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia at Drexel University. Nearly to a person, Joel’s networks recount extraordinary, wide-ranging conversations with their thoughtful colleague, often leap-frogging between topics for hours with seemingly no limit to Joel’s insight, learning, or interests.
In his final days, Joel continued to share his vital curiosity and keen wisdom with loved ones, offering book recommendations, urging on long-term plans, and providing pragmatic advice. In conversation with a cherished long-time horticulturist colleague, Joel described his vision for an ideal memorial garden, planted with conifers and lilies. True to form, his learning and sly humor entered the exchange, and he offered some final guidance familiar to all garden lovers: “Plant two of everything, because one will die.”
A remembrance of Joel T. Fry will be planned at Bartram’s Garden at a later date. Many of his writings and publications can be accessed here.