|BOTANICAL ELECTRONIC NEWS|
|No. 268 May 11, firstname.lastname@example.org||Victoria, B.C.|
Jack Major, Professor Emeritus of Plant Ecology at the University of California, Davis (UCD), died 13 February 2001 in Davis at the age of 83. Professor Major had a profound impact on the direction of plant ecology in the United States during the second half of the 20th century. Besides his immediate family--brother Ted, wife Mary, and sons Paul, John, and James--he left behind many students and colleagues who fondly remember his great academic gifts to them and who join the family in their grief of his loss.
Jack's academic home for most of his career was the UCD Botany Department, where he taught from 1955 until retirement in 1981. His spiritual home, however, was in mountains: the Uinta Mountains of Utah, the Sierra Nevada of California, the Grand Tetons of Wyoming, the Brooks Range and the Juneau ice fields of Alaska, and the Himalayas of Nepal. This was the environment that he most often shared with graduate students and those undergraduates fortunate enough to take his plant ecology classes. He truly was the ideal scientist described by Poincare (1958), as someone who "...does not study Nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it... [and] because it is beautiful."
Jack was born 15 March 1917 in Salt Lake City, UT and completed high school there in 1935. He went on to Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) and received a B.Sc. in Range Management in 1942. For the next several years he served in the Army's 10th Mountain Division, the justifiably famous unit of 1000 skiers and alpinists who trained hard in the mountain west before participating in the Italian campaign of World War II. After the war, a number of men from that Division went on to become conservationists, ecologists, and leaders in the promotion of recreational skiing. Between 1946 and 1953, Jack attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley, obtaining a Ph.D. in Soil Science under the direction of Professor Hans Jenny. During this time he also met and married Mary Cecil, thanks to an introduction from brother Ted who had met Mary by chance on a rock climbing expedition in the Grand Tetons. She, too, had a love for the mountains.
Jack was hired as a member of a young weed science group in the Botany Department at UCD. His strong interest in the ecology of undisturbed mountain vegetation, however, conflicted with the weed group's focus on plants in agronomic, low-elevation settings. This habitat bias gradually distanced him from weed science, and a 1964 Fulbright Fellowship to Innsbruck, Austria was to cement a lifetime's focus on vegetation science.
He had a driving curiosity that made him an extensive reader of, and correspondent with, scientists who specialized in a wide range of topics, including those who wrote in other languages. As a result, he was far ahead of his time. For example, we have correspondence in 1948 between Jack and Sewal Wright, a major contributor to the synthesis of Darwinism and Mendelism. Wright responded to Major's query of how to determine the relative importance of multiple interacting factors that explain a plant community's distribution limits, by describing his own original statistical method, path analysis. Path analysis has only been used regularly in the ecological literature for the past dozen years, but it was part of Jack's education 40 years earlier. Another example: Inspired by his major professor's book, The factors of soil formation (Jenny 1941), he wrote a paper that proposed to use differential equations to describe vegetation-environment relationships for any given plant community (Major 1951). Not for another quarter of a century, however, did any ecologist actually begin to use differential equations in the description and modeling of plant communities.
One measure of Professor Major's vision and impact is the fact that several of his earliest papers are still cited today, in some cases more often now than originally. According to the ISI Web of Science, "A functional, factorial approach to plant ecology" has been cited 91 times in the past 25 years. His superb synthesis of California's flora, geology, and ecology, "Endemism and speciation in the California flora," (Stebbins and Major 1963) has been cited 102 times in the same period, and a third paper, "Buried viable seeds in California bunchgrass sites and their bearing on the definition of flora," (Major and Pyott 1966) has been cited 138 times--at the rate of seven times per year for the most recent 5 years. His work on primary succession following glacial retreat (Crocker and Major 1955) is a classic, cited nearly 300 times in the last 25 years and still described in many textbooks nearly a half-century later (e.g., Barbour et al. 1999, Begon et al. 1996, Krebs 2001).
Jack was one of very few Americans to practice the phytosociological protocols widely used in Europe (and throughout the non-English-speaking world) for sampling and classifying vegetation. Consequently, releve-style sampling and syntaxonomy were employed by most of his students in their theses and dissertations (e.g., Neilson 1961, Pemble 1970, Taylor 1976, Burke 1979, Benedict 1981). [Jack Major and his students were the first US ecologists (and maybe the only ones) to notice and use our 1971 Ceska-Roemer computer program for vegetation classification. - A. Ceska] Jack's gentle leadership in pulling reluctant American ecologists across a then-narrow bridge of communication into the rest of the world was without doubt of seminal help later to Robert Whittaker in the 1970s when his travels and publications widened that bridge. Only now--20-30 years after his students have finished their graduate degrees--are phytosociological papers becoming accepted and publishable in the US. A retrospective appreciation of the value of his work, (and that of his students) to conservation and park management was written by David Parsons on the occasion of Jack's retirement (Parsons 1982 and Anonymous 1982).
Throughout his career, Dr. Major was as well-known for his reviews of ecological books written in other languages as for his own research. The journal Ecology alone published 158 of his book reviews, most of them of works written in French, German, and Russian. These detailed reviews brought foreign news and ideas to the attention of otherwise ethnocentric and linguistically challenged American ecologists. In 1975 the Ecological Society of America gave him the first Distinguished Service Citation specifically for his his prodigious reviewing activity, judged to be an outstanding service to Society members. According to then-President Richard Miller (1975), "Major's reviews have consistently pointed out gaps in our own knowledge of American ecosystems and have indicated directions for fruitful new research...[We] would be immeasurably poorer without his dedicated efforts."
He was a gentleman scholar: learned but soft-spoken and modest to the point of self-effacement. If presented, in conversation, with an opinion contrary to his own, he was sincerely quizzical and would quite innocently ask why one thought that way, rather than offering a defensive or challenging counter-statement. In this manner, Jack made those around him feel equally learned. Even when he disagreed with them, his own contrary opinions were delivered so delicately and non-confrontationally (usually ending with his traditional phrase, "Is this alright?") that the recipients might not realize their logic had been shredded until reflecting on it some days later.
His forte in teaching was with small groups, because his low-key manner was not well suited to large lecture sections or busloads of fieldtrip students. On hikes in the field, a student had to be self-motivated enough to keep up and crowd close around him while he pointed out species and talked of their indicator value. Those who hung back missed a great education. His method of teaching was Socratic, inviting questions and asking questions back, usually including his stock phrase, "Is this alright?" because he didn't want to lose anyone. His classes and his research interests were reflected in theses, dissertations, and publications on: alpine plant communities (Major and Taylor 1977 and 1988), biogeography (Taylor 1977), California vegetation (Barbour and Major 1977 and 1988), gradient analysis (Waring and Major 1964), plant ecophysiology (Macdonald 1981, Barry 1971), plant-soil relations (Myatt 1968), systematics (e.g., Gankin 1957), and vegetation change (Vankat 1970, Vankat & Major 1978). He was mentor to more than 20 graduate students of his own and to many more via correspondence or by way of serving as a member on their thesis/ dissertation committees.
We miss you, Jack; but fortunately your perspectives, publications, and personal memories do remain with us. We give special thanks to Robert Burgess for his assistance in preparing this testimonial and his 1996 publication. To use your own phrase, Jack, "Is this alright?" We hope it is.
And on his grave some kindly person wrote,
Never did he jump on a bandwagon...
He preferred to walk.
---"Epitaph" by Paul Castelfranco (1991)
[This article has been prepared for publication in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. I would like to thank the authors for their permission to use it in BEN. - Adolf Ceska]
According to Karl Sabbagh's web page, he "is a writer and television producer with 25 years of experience describing complex events and subjects for a nonspecialist audience. His programs for the BBC and PBS have encompassed physics, medicine, psychology, philosophy, technology, and anthropology. Two of his television projects have been accompanied by best-selling books: The Living Body and Skyscraper. Sabbagh has written numerous articles for newspapers and magazines, including The Sunday Times, New Scientist, The Listener, and Punch. ... "
His last book "A Rum affair: A true story of botanical fraud" is based on an unpublished manuscript written by the late John Raven. John Raven was "a classic don and brilliant amateur botanist, said by friends to have almost mystical understanding of plants." In this unpublished manuscript, John Raven accused Professor John Heslop Harrison that many botanical discoveries Heslop Harrison made on the Isle of Rum, Inner Hebrides, such as Carex capitata, C. microglochin, C. glacialis, etc., were fraudulent. According to John Raven and Karl Sabbagh these reports were based on plants introduced and grown on Isle of Rum by Prof. Heslop Harrison or his students.
I am sorry, I gave up reading this book soon after I realized that Karl Sabbagh is not competent to tell the botanical fraud from botanical feud. In my opinion, somebody who characterizes sedges as grasses with some seeds on the top cannot evaluate if finding or not finding of any particular sedge is really the evidence of a fraud.
Annual plants that were used by John Raven as an definitive proof of Prof. Heslop Harrison's fraud are too capricious, and their occurrence or absence can be interpreted properly only if one is familiar with the life strategy of each individual species in question. Annual plants can pop-up in any possible or impossible places and their occurrence or absence must be evaluated with great care and good understanding of their ecology. I am not sure that John Raven had enough experience to do this evaluation, but I know that Karl Sabbagh does not.
I am not convinced that the story of John Raven vs. Heslop Harrison is really a story of a botanical fraud. It can be equally well a vivid illustration of a feud between two botanists. There are numerous examples of botanists who were more than critical of each other, perhaps the best documented one was the relationship between Edward Lee Greene and Marcus E. Jones in the Pacific Northwest of the USA.
"Greene was first, last and all the time a botanical crook, and an unmitigated liar, when it suited him to try and make a point against someone else," wrote M.E. Jones.
Yet, both Greene and Jones were good botanists.
[Animosity between botanists is not unusual, nor it's restriced to this particular discipline. At an astronomical congress, my friend overheard a heated discussion that ended with the following warning: "Venus is yours, but don't dare to touch Jupiter!"]
A word of caution has been already written by Edward Teague (htt://naturalscience.com/ns/books/book08.html ). Dr. Rudi Schmid reviewed this book in Taxon 49: 848-851 and listed several references to other reviews. The book was also reviewed by Tim Flannery in The New York Review of Books, March 29, 2001.
I hope that Sabbagh's book triggers concentrated effort to investigate the flora of Hebrides more intesively. Only after such an investigation we can get an answer whether or not (or to what degree) Heslop Harrison's finds were fraudulent.
Oops, how well or how poorly are the Hebrides known botanically? I forgot the excellent monograph "Past and present vegetation of the Isle of Skye: a palaeoecological study" by H.J.B. Birks (Cambridge, 1973)! Sabbagh's book made me to re-read several chapters of the Isle of Skye study and I found it much more thrilling and exciting than "A Rum affair."