Robert Runyon, botanist and photographer, was born on July 28, 1881, in Catlettsburg, Kentucky, the second of six children born to Floyd and Elizabeth (Lawson) Runyon. No record of Runyon's education has been found, although it seems likely that he attended grammar school and possibly high school as well. Runyon married Nora Young on September 16, 1901, in Ironton, Ohio, and they had one son. Nora Runyon died in Catlettsburg in December 1908. The following year Runyon and his son moved to Brownsville, where Runyon married Amelia Lenor Medrano, daughter of a prominent Matamoros family, on July 4, 1913; they had three daughters and two sons. Runyon initially managed a newsstand and curio store in the train station but in 1910 opened a photography studio. He subsequently produced a significant body of photographs documenting the history of the Rio Grande valley during the Mexican Revolution. Runyon's photographs provided unique visual documentation of revolutionary conflict in northeastern Mexico between 1913 and 1916. On June 4, 1913, he traveled to Matamoros the day after its Federal garrison had been captured by Gen. Lucio Blanco's Constitutionalist revolutionary forces. There Runyon photographed the wounded and the dead, buildings that had been destroyed, and political executions. Later he recorded the August 1913 ceremony at Los Borregos in which General Blanco turned over captured land to the peasants who worked there. With the help of his brother-in-law, José C. Medrano, a member of Blanco's forces, Runyon obtained permission to accompany rebel troops on the fall 1913 campaign against Ciudad Victoria and, in 1914, on an attack on Monterrey. Runyon was the only professional photographer to record two 1915 raids across the United States border: the Norias Ranch raid and the train wreck near Olmito, forays which some historians have linked with revolutionary forces. A number of Runyon's images were used on widely distributed postcards that contributed to a stereotypical view of Mexicans and their culture. His photographs were used by Texas newspapers and national publications such as the New York Times and Leslie's Weekly, although many remained unpublished.
Runyon also documented the buildup of United States military forces at Fort Brown, Brownsville, with more than 2,000 images. Fort Brown was reactivated by the United States War Department in 1913 to quell border unrest and continued to be manned after the United States entered World War I. Runyon's images of daily camp life and special festivities such as polo tournaments, banquets, and horse shows form a striking contrast to his photographs of the brutal war in Mexico. Other images of historical interest include aerial views of the camp taken from wireless towers, photographs of Gen. John J. Pershing, who commanded the troops stationed at the border, and images of early warplanes and armored cars. Runyon's commercial portraits of individuals, businesses, school groups, sports teams, and street scenes provide an important, if less dramatic, document of urban life in Matamoros and Brownsville during a period of rapid development in the Rio Grande valley. Many of his photographs were used to promote tourism in the area. Runyon also photographed regional plants. An accomplished botanist, he compiled one of the largest and best private herbaria in Texas and discovered several species of plants. A number of these bear his name, including three types of cactus, a grass that grows on sand dunes, and a tree that bears an orange-like fruit. Runyon coauthored Texas Cacti: A Popular and Scientific Account of the Cacti Native of Texas (1930) with Ellen D. Schulz Quillin and wrote Vernacular Names of Plants Indigenous to the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas (1947); both books were illustrated with Runyon's photographs . He was preparing a third volume, An Annotated List of the Flora of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, at the time of his death. Runyon participated in a number of botanical societies, including the Texas Academy of Science, the Botanical Society of America, the Torry Botanical Club, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, the International Association for Plant Taxonomy, and the Phi Sigma Society, a biological fraternity at the University of Texas. He also was a charter member of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, for which he served as regional vice president (1942) and fellow (1945).
In 1926 Runyon closed his photographic studio and joined his brother-in-law, José Medrano, in running a store in Matamoros, Mexico. He bought out Medrano three years later and continued to operate the store until 1938. During this period he also established a curio and gift store in Brownsville. Runyon's career as a civic leader commenced in 1937, when he was appointed city manager of Brownsville, a post he held for more than two years. On November 4, 1941, he was elected mayor of Brownsville for a two-year term, during which time he successfully revamped the city's budget. For his distinguished service as city manager and mayor, Runyon was appointed aide-de-camp on Kentucky Governor Earl C. Clements's staff in 1949 and given the rank and grade of colonel. During World War II Runyon served as municipal defense coordinator for Brownsville and was awarded a Certificate of Merit for Distinguished Service from the Navy League of the United States of America. As a member of the park board from 1946 to 1949, he worked to conserve some of the lush plant life in the city, and was subsequently awarded a certificate of merit by Mayor H. L. Stokely in 1957. Runyon served as chairman of the Cameron County Democratic Executive Committee from 1950 to 1952, and in 1952 he unsuccessfully ran for the Texas House of Representatives. From 1959 to 1961 he served, first as a member and later as chairman, on the Brownsville Planning and Zoning Board. In addition to his activities as a merchant, photographer, botanist, and politician, Runyon cultivated an interest in genealogy that led to three publications: Genealogy of the Descendents of Anthony Lawson of Northumberland, England (1952); Runyon Genealogy (1955), coauthored with his cousin Amos Runyon; and Supplement to Runyon Genealogy (1962). Runyon was a member of the National Genealogical Society of Washington, D.C., and the Genealogical Society of New Jersey. He also was a member of the national and Texas societies of the Sons of the American Revolution.
Runyon died on March 9, 1968, and was buried at Buena Vista Cemetery. His herbarium, containing more than 8,750 specimens at the time of his death, was donated to the University of Texas at Austin, and his collection of 1,000 botanical volumes was donated to Texas A&I University at Kingsville. In 1986 Runyon's family donated his photographic collection and business files to the Barker Texas History Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The center subsequently received a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, part of the National Archives, to preserve and index the collection, which consists of approximately 14,000 items in a variety of formats, including glass-plate negatives, prints, postcards, film negatives and lantern slides. Significant collections of Runyon's photographs are also housed in the Brownsville Historical Association and the Hidalgo County Historical Museum, both in the Rio Grande valley. Smaller collections of his work are housed at the University of Texas Institute of Texan Cultures, San Antonio; the Special Collections of the Library of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Odessa; and the Central Power and Light Company, Corpus Christi. In 1989 the Barker Texas History Center organized an exhibition of Runyon's photographs, "La Tierra y Su Gente (The Land and its People): The Rio Grande Photographs of Robert Runyon, 1910–1926."