Louis C. Bierweiler, former curator of collections in the Botanical Museum, died Saturday at the age of 77. More than anyone else, he worked to make the Glass Flowers Harvard's most famous exhibit.
Bierweiler came to work for the Museum in 1901 when he was just 15, and one of his first duties was to unpack the crates in which the glass models were shipped from Europe. Later, he mounted, displayed, and repaired the specimens; in fact, except for the father-and-son team of German artisans who made the flowers, he was the only person ever to touch them.
Retired in '57
In 1957, Bierweiler retired as curator of botanical collections, but until recently, he continued to work in the museum part-time, coming in every day to check on the flowers or arrange other exhibits. During his 56 years of active service, more than seven million tourists came to see the Ware Collection of Glass Flowers.
To many of them, Bierweiler patiently explained that the models were not meant to be decorative curiosities; rather, they were exact replicas of representative plants intended as a lifelike guide to botanical taxonomy. Higher plants are classified according to the nature of their flowering parts, but real plants have an infuriating habit of seldom blooming at the convenience of the people who study them. The 847 hand-molded Glass Flowers were an excellent solution to this difficulty and still remain invaluable as teaching aids.
In order to protect the delicate models from vibration and shock, Bierweiler perfected a technique for buttressing the stems, leaves, and petals without obstructing the details of color and design. In his early years with the Museum he also set type and operated a hand press to make the labels for the display.
His services spanned every phase of the Museum's functions. When all of the University's botany was taught there, for example, he prepared much of the classroom material, including many microscope slides still used today.
Bierweiler devised ingenious programs of economizing to aid the museum in periods of financial stress, and attempted to get grants for such desperately needed (and still lacking) improvements as an elevator to take tourists to the Glass Flowers on the third floor.
Funeral services will be held 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Long Funeral Home, 1979 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.