|BOTANICAL ELECTRONIC NEWS|
|No. 240 February 1, firstname.lastname@example.org||Victoria, B.C.|
Professor Stebbins was one of the architects of the intellectual watershed known as the evolutionary synthesis, the period during which knowledge from the study of fossils, genetics, cells and the evolutionary history of organisms was incorporated into the theories of Charles Darwin, creating what is now evolutionary biology. In his book "Variation and Evolution in Plants" Professor Stebbins displayed an encyclopedic knowledge of botanical studies from fossils to chromosomes as he provided a detailed argument that plants were subject to the same processes of evolution as animals, an idea that biologists today take as a given.
George Ledyard Stebbins Jr. was born Jan. 6, 1906, in Lawrence, N.Y. He entered Harvard in 1924 intending to become a lawyer. But he came under the sway of a charismatic Harvard professor, Merritt Lyndon Fernald, one of the century's leading botanists and editor of the botanical bible, "Gray's Manual of Botany.'' Professor Stebbins entered Harvard graduate school to study botany in 1926.
After graduate school, Professor Stebbins became a professor at Colgate University. He later took a position at the University of California at Berkeley and eventually UC Davis.
He was also an early conservationist. In 1967 while president of the California Native Plant Society, he was influential in attempts to conserve native plants and habitats. In 1967, he prevented the destruction of a raised beach on the Monterey Peninsula that he dubbed Evolution Hill, now called the S.F.B. Morse Botanical Area, where Professor Stebbins said all the problems and principles of evolution could be seen played out among the plant species.
Professor Stebbins served as president of the American Society of Naturalists, the Western Society of Naturalists, the Botanical Society of America and the California Botanical Society and as secretary general of the Union of Biological Sciences. He was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
[Abbreviated from a posting on TAXACOM. See also: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2000/01/22/MN76135.DTL ]
During my graduate days at UC Berkeley, Stebbins became a focal point of my intellectual growth. I took his course in Evolutionary Mechanisms around 1948, at the time he was writing his seminal book, "Variation and Evolution in Plants" (Columbia Univ. Press, 1950). So he was in top form, delivering exciting lectures, coupled with stage antics to boot: stumbling off the podium and making cartoon animals on the blackboard.
Stebbins was on my PhD thesis committee and was intrigued with my research on edaphic races of common plants on serpentine soils. But he fell asleep during my orals, not an uncommon event for him. Once, at a California Botanical Society meeting, he introduced the famous palaeobotanist, Olaf Tedin. Tedin halted briefly during his lecture, which prompted dozing Stebbins to leap up and start clapping, thinking the talk was over.
One took one's life in his hands to be in a car driven by Stebbins. Once, crossing the San Francisco Bay Bridge on our way to the famous serpentine at Tiburon, he turned to talk to us in the rear, and veered into the oncoming lane. We survived without incident, except for near heart failure.
Before leaving Berkeley, I became Stebbins' research assistant. At that time he was looking for drought resistance in native grasses. So I made the hybrids and tested the progeny. Again, fearsome auto trips with him at the wheel, as we sped through the fog on the way to transplant sites at Davis. His last paper merits reading by all those interested in plant evolution: "A brief summary of my ideas on evolution" Amer. Jour. of Botany 86(1999):1207-1208. My favorite Stebbins quote: "The only generalization or law that holds in biology is that exceptions exist to every law."
I first encountered Ledyard Stebbins in 1973, at the First International Congress of Systematics and Evolutionary Biology in Boulder, Colorado. I was a callow young graduate student from the University of Oklahoma, and this was my first national (not to mention international) meeting. Prof. Stebbins was giving a talk (I don't remember the topic), and I was mesmerized. Every word burned. Any doubts I may have had about my career choice were dashed in that moment--THIS was what I wanted to do.
During the questions after the talk, a loud voice boomed out behind me and to the right: Art Cronquist. He and Prof. Stebbins traded barbs, in a manner I later came to know was typical, but I might as well have been in the presence of the gods of Olympus.
I had been searching for a doctoral institution, and I decided I wanted to work with Prof. Stebbins. I was rapidly dissuaded: "He's retiring soon." "He almost never takes graduate students." And so on.
As chance would have it, I ended up at U.C. Davis, but in the Botany Department, not Genetics, so I saw little of him. I heard stories of his activities in the California Native Plant Society (it was reputed that he was immune to the effects of poison oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum, and would pull himself up hillsides by its stems), and came to respect that aspect of his career. But in some ways he seemed almost superfluous, a relict of a bygone era. After all, Variation and Evolution in Plants was published in the year before I was born.
I finished my degree, did some time as a lecturer and a post-doc, and ended up at Cal Poly Pomona. In early 1984, Grady Webster invited me back to Davis to give a seminar in one of his graduate classes. I was speaking on the origin of diploid species from hybrids in Encelia of the Asteraceae. The audience was mainly students, but there in the back of the room was Prof. Stebbins. I gave the talk, answered a few questions, and then, as I hoped and feared, his hand went up: "What you have here is just a comparium [syngameon better describes what he meant: a group of morphological semispecies that are interfertile]. In a thousand years they could breed themselves out of existence!"
Of course, if my species weren't really species, they couldn't speciate. At other times, in other settings, I might have taken his words to heart and abandoned the research. But I was an arrogant young assistant professor, and he was, in my estimation at the time, a "has-been", so I nodded politely, and then set out to "prove him wrong". The resulting research focus has continued to the present day--a current graduate student is sorting out the species within the "comparium" of shrubby Mimulus.
Was the remark made in malice? Certainly not; most things were beneath his malice. Was it a challenge? Perhaps. But I like to think it was a offhand remark, that he had answered the question to HIS satisfaction, and was kind enough to let me in on it.
Great scientists often accomplish as much by their mistakes as by their successes, and Prof. Stebbins was no exception. I and many others have done our own small parts to advance the field by working to "prove him wrong" about one thing or another. This is no surprise. If science is to advance, someone HAS to see farther than the Great Ones, and the greater they are, the more scientists they inspire to see farther. I'll always be grateful for the opportunity he afforded me.
When I saw him at the plenary session of the International Botanical Congress in St. Louis last summer, I knew I would never see him again. He was quite frail, in a wheelchair, but his voice still carried some of the authority that it had at another meeting 26 years before. He offered to meet the next day with anyone who was interested, in a small lecture room. I considered taking him up on the offer, but then I realized that we already had our conversation, years before, so I left him to the others who would seek his presence, so that he might inspire them, or challenge them, or anger them, and thereby advance our field even more.