ISSN 1188-603X

No. 410 June 17, 2009 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2


From: Bruce A. Bennett ( and Paul M. Catling (

On Monday, March 24 2009, William (Bill) James Cody passed away following a stroke. Bill was a very good friend and a very valuable colleague in the study of Canada’s northern flora. What he left behind for Canada and for botanical research was enormous, and much of it had to do with the Canadian north. Both to honour Bill and to assist students of Canadian botany, we have briefly outlined his botanical work in the north and provided a list of his 73 scientific publications concerning Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon. A more extensive and general tribute to Bill will appear in an upcoming issue the Canadian Field-Naturalist.

Bill was born in Hamilton on 2 December 1922. His father was a doctor and his mother a nurse at Hamilton General Hospital. He grew up in Hamilton and it was here that he worked as a young man and made his first botanical collections which are now in the Royal Botanical Gardens where he worked under the supervision of Dr. Lulu Gaiser. He received his B.A. from McMaster University in 1946 joining Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), then simply “the Department of Agriculture”, the same year. Bill married Lois Jean Wright in 1950 (deceased). They had 5 children, David, Margaret, Leslie, Douglas and Gordon. His family was always a major focus, and many of Bill’s closest friends find inspiration in the way he put his life together.

Bill served as Curator of the AAFC Vascular Plant Herbarium (DAO) from 1946 to 1988. He is most well known for his work on plant classification and phytogeography, particularly relating to plants of northern Canada. Bill retired from AAFC in 1987 after 41 years of service, but continued to come in and work every day as an honorary research associate until 2006, then twice a week until the spring of 2008 (see BEN # 310, May 9, 2003).

Before Bill

By 1948 the most important and extensive collections made in the continental Northwest Territories were still those made by surgeon-naturalist Sir John Richardson, who between the years 1819 and 1827 was part of Sir John Franklin’s first and second expeditions. In all, Richardson reported 474 species of flowering plants and ferns that appeared in W.J. Hooker’s classic Flora Boreali-Americana (1829-1840). This was about a third of the species known today.

Prior to the middle of the 20th century, comprehensive information on the flora of Yukon and continental Northwest Territories was just emerging, mainly from outside the country. It included Nicholas Polunin’s (1940) Botany of the Canadian Eastern Arctic as well as J.P. Anderson’s papers (1943-1950) on the Flora of Alaska and Adjacent Parts of Canada and Eric Hultén’s (1941-1950 and finally in 1968) Flora of Alaska and Yukon. Alf Erling Porsild had written several works including 1943 Materials for a flora of the continental Northwest Territories and the 1945 Alpine flora of the eastern slope of the Mackenzie Mountains, Northwest Territories . A major contribution was Raup’s 1947 Botany of southwestern Mackenzie.

Although some of the collections were made by specialized botanists who were focussed on a complete regional inventory, most of the early plant collections were made opportunistically by explorers, geologists, missionaries and general naturalists. Apart from the Mackenzie Mountains which were explored as a consequence of the development of the Canol Road, and Raup’s work, there had been very little comprehensive botanical exploration of northwestern Canada at this time (for useful reviews see Porsild (1943), Porsild & Cody (1980) and Cody (2000)). Despite inclusion in regional floras, the plants of northwestern Canada were still not well known.

The time was right

Quite often good science is carried on the crest of a political and/or economic wave and so it was in the middle and later 20th century when two events resulted in great attention to Canada’s northern sovereignty. These were the development of oil and gas industry in the north and the concern over attack across the North Pole. It was a period of conflict, tension and competition with the Soviet Union. During this time the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW line), a series of radar stations, was established across the north to detect incoming Soviet bombers. Defence Research Board, Department of National Defence, cooperatively with the federal Department of Agriculture undertook a major survey on biting insects in 1947 (Freeman 1954, 1959), because biting insects are so abundant at certain times in the north that human activity is severely restricted. These insect studies required the involvement of botanists in describing habitats and this was the basis for Bill Cody’s first trip to the north in 1948. The insect research also supported several other botanical surveys by expert botanists such as James A. Calder’s (see Cody & Cayouette 1991) survey around Dawson in 1949 and John M. Gillett’s surveys near Watson Lake and Whitehorse the same year. The botanical results of the northern insect survey project were included in a series of reports by Defence Research Board (e.g. Cody 1948, Freeman 1948).

Development in the north required a better understanding of natural resources. With the proposal for a Mackenzie Valley Gas pipeline, activities including plant inventories increased dramatically in the Northwest Territories, particularly in the vicinity of the Mackenzie River. The Canadian Wildlife Service sponsored numerous studies to provide information for landscape planning in connection with protection of wildlife and Bill was invited to provide botanical information. The International Biological Program (IBP) was a major force between 1964 and 1974. It sought to identify critical natural areas and apply current methodologies to ecosystem ecology on a global scale. Large advances in knowledge of the north resulted from this program and Bill contributed extensively. For example he produced a comprehensive report (Simmons & Cody 1974) proposing ecological reserves in the Northwest Territories (Plains of Abraham, Brackett Lake, Glacier Lake and Pilot Lake). The economic, as well as strategic benefits, of a presence in the north were well understood. Funding to support this development became widely available and travel in the north suddenly became a lot easier. For example, Bill was able to take advantage of the Polar Continental Shelf Program (PCSP) of Natural Resources Canada which provided well-organized and efficient transport to remote areas by small airplane and helicopter.

Expeditions to the north

To write books about plants in the north Bill had to know what was there. The work of other botanists was useful but not enough for comprehensive texts. This meant that Bill had to travel throughout the northern wilderness enduring severe weather, hordes of biting insects, risks of bear attack and the dangers inherent in wilderness travel by bush planes and helicopters. The federal Department of Agriculture approved and encouraged Bill’s travels and during his frequent periods of absence his devoted wife Lois (deceased March 1998) cared for a large family.

Bill began his work in the north in 1948 collecting specimens at Coral Harbour, Southampton Island at the north end of Hudson Bay. This and additional expeditions up to 1951 were undertaken as part of a study of biting flies and their habitats for the Defence Research Board. His first visit of the continental Northwest Territories was in 1949 when Bill, accompanied by J.B. McCanse, collected around Yellowknife, Snare River, eastern Great Bear Lake and Norman Wells. In 1950 accompanied by C.C. Loan he collected at Fort Smith where he studied the salt plains a few miles west of town.

In 1951 he collected in central Alaska along the Richardson Highway near Delta Junction with T.J.M. Webster. His field books (now part of the DAO archive) for this Alaska trip indicate that he was there to assist in ecological studies of biting flies, especially mosquito breeding habitats, but as usual he collected extensively and acquired a large amount of information not directly related to the insect studies but essential to our understanding of northern botany. He did not travel north in 1952, but 1953 saw him collecting in Lac La Biche, northern Alberta and with R.L. Gutteridge in the vicinity of Norman Wells, the Canol Road and Aklavik in the Northwest Territories. Bill remained in Ottawa in 1954 and did very little botanical work. In 1955 he was making collections with J.M. Matte in Fort Simpson. These collections were particularly significant as many were the first reports of species that are now known to be invasive in the region. He was again unable travel north in 1956 but in 1957 he collected with D.H. Ferguson around Reindeer Station on the east side of the Mackenzie Delta.

From 1958 to 1960 he did not travel north but in 1961 he worked with K.W. Spicer, for the Canada Department of Agriculture with a soil survey party along the Liard River from the BC border to the junction with the Mackenzie River at Fort Simpson. In 1962 he was not in the north but in 1963 he was collecting again at Reindeer Station but also on the east slope of the Richardson Mountains to try to determine the effects of introduced reindeer grazing on the local habitats. In 1964 he was not in the north but in 1965 he collected along the Slave River between Fort Smith and Great Slave Lake including Hay River. It was in 1965 that, along with Erling Porsild of the Canadian Museum of Nature, he began writing the Vascular Plants of the Northwest Territories. In 1966 Bill was again in the southern Northwest Territories. In 1967, along with Kenneth W. Spicer he collected in the Mackenzie Mountains with a Geological Survey of Canada field party, and in the southern part of Yukon along the newly constructed Robert Campbell Highway and Nahanni Range Road, This was his first time collecting in Yukon. Bill was absent from the north in 1968 and 1969.

In 1970-72 he took part in field studies in the Mackenzie Mountains and various other localities in the southern Mackenzie District to assess sites that had been recommended for preservation in the International Biological Program/Conservation of Terrestrial Habitats project. He was on the Keele River in 1971 when he barely escaped a severe flood of his riverside camp. Bill did not travel north again until 1980 when he travelled extensively in Yukon collecting throughout southern Yukon from Watson Lake along the Alaska Highway, through Carcross and Tagish, Whitehorse, Kluane Lake, Haines Junction, the Haines Road, Canol Road, Ross River, Carmacks, then up the Dempster Highway to Inuvik. He then began a reconnaissance in the area which was at the time known as “the Northern Yukon National Park study area.” The helicopter support was provided by the Polar Continental Shelf Project. This included the British Mountains and the North Slope. Sites visited in this first significant Yukon trip included Clarence Lagoon, Stokes Point, Firth River, Malcolm River, Roland Creek, Spring Creek, Empire Mountain and Komakuk Beach. He continued retracing the Dempster Highway and the Klondike Highway, the Nisling River and on to Haines Junction and throughout the Front Ranges of Kluane National Park, including Kathleen Lake, the Alsek River, Slims River and Mt. Decoli. He then traveled through Whitehorse again to Ross River via the South Canol Road, then back to the Klondike Highway to Dawson City and once more onto the Dempster in what is now Tombstone Park.

In 1981 he collected in the vicinity of Fort Liard in Northwest Territories and on the South Canol Road in Yukon. He worked in MacMillan Pass for several weeks where for the first time he was invited to cooperate with the Government of Yukon as an expert on the region. It was at this time that he met Catherine Kennedy, vegetation ecologist with the Yukon Government, who remained a friend and colleague. As well as collecting in southern Yukon in 1982, Bill collected throughout the Richardson Mountains where with helicopter support provided by Continental Polar Shelf Project funding and with the help of mycologist James H. Ginns, he collected nearly 2500 specimens. In 1983 he once again teamed up with Catherine Kennedy and collected in the southeast corner of Yukon including some significant sites near and including Coal River Springs and along the Alaska Highway. In 1984 he returned with J.H. Ginns and with helicopter support collected throughout the Ogilvie and Wernecke mountains, in the Dawson City area including West Dawson and downstream on the Yukon River to the Alaskan border. He once again amassed an amazing number of collections in excess of 2500. It was mainly through the collections of 1980-1984 that he began compiling his final great botanical work, “the Flora of the Yukon Territory” which was published in 1996.

Although 1984 was his last official scientific expedition to the north, Bill was to make four more family-related trips. Beginning in 1999 he took four of his children to see Yukon by travelling Yukon’s southern highways, He took Gordon in 1999 and once again traveled the southwest Yukon before travelling north up the Dempster Highway and assisting Catherine Kennedy with research on Hershel Island. In 2000 along with his son David he traveled mainly along the Alaska Highway between Whitehorse and Beaver Creek, making significant collections of introduced species along the roadsides. Even on this two week family vacation he collected over 500 sheets. In 2001 he returned with his daughter Margaret travelling the highways and byways of central Yukon. Finally in 2002 Bill returned for his final visit to southern Yukon with his son Douglas. Not surprisingly these trips also resulted in a good number of plant collections

Post expedition period 1985-2008

This period of compiling information, identifying thousands of specimens and preparing current identification keys required special skills. These skills are quite different from those needed for northern travel. Hard and diligent work was essential but his interest in working with people also played a major role. This period was probably just as important as the expeditions to Bill’s achievement in the north because it not only included major follow-up research contributions, but, by enlisting the help of others, it greatly expanded knowledge and responsibility for information on northern flora.

While Bill’s early work in the north often utilized material collected by others, there were few, other than Alf Erling Porsild (see Soper and Cody 1978a, b), with a deep interest in northern plants. That changed after the Porsild and Cody (1980) flora which enabled more people to be involved. Most major contributions involve more than one person and Bill’s work was no exception. He had help from a number of legendary northern botanists including; B.A. Bennett, P. Caswell, C.E. Kennedy, K.L. MacInnes, K.L. Reading, and G.W. Scotter, and S.C. Zoltai. Other people also helped including particularly his daughter Leslie who typed manuscripts. Bill was a very pleasant and dependable person to work with and there can be little doubt that this helped him to do as much as he did.

The essence of Bill’s achievement in the north

For many northern species there were only a few records half century ago. Bill dramatically changed that, finding many hundreds of plants in new areas and noting their habitats. Our knowledge of the occurrence and ecology of northern plants had expanded enormously by 2008. Of course this vast increase in knowledge is also reflected in the number of taxa known. For example in 1943 Porsild reported 731 taxa (species and infrataxa) from Northwest Territories. The flora of the Northwest Territories is now known to contain over 1254 species alone (not including infrataxa - Catling et al. 2008), roughly double the number, and much of this is attributable to Bill’s work. Likewise for Yukon, Bill added 208 taxa. Although our knowledge of the northern flora may not be entirely satisfactory, it is vastly improved over what it was as a result of Bill’s effort.

Since Bill always wanted to be complete in his botanical documentation, he searched for and collected introduced plants. His work in documenting invasive species provided a baseline for evaluating spread. Many of the earliest reports of introduced and naturalized species in the Mackenzie River Valley are based of Bill’s early collections. He produced the first two focussed and comprehensive articles on invasive plants in the north featuring Wood Buffalo Park (Wein, 1992) and the Norman Wells pipeline (Cody et. al. 2000).

Over the period of his life, Bill collected approx. 40,000 specimens and it is estimated that at least 30,000 of these resulted from his 17 expeditions to the north, with perhaps a few thousand more from Yukon than from the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Throughout the period, and subsequently, it is estimated that he probably processed as many as 20,000 specimens collected by others and over 80% of this was from north of 60. Always happy to answer questions, he responded to many hundreds of requests for information and identifications each year. Bill made his botanical knowledge of the north available in two books and 71 mostly peer-reviewed publications.

Bill Cody’s work in the north is essential, not only as a basis for the protection of plant biodiversity and to establish protected areas, but also for biological research and ongoing work relating to ecology, forestry, sustainable resource management, and wildlife management. Not only through his publications, but also as an the expert, Bill has provided an enormous amount of information on plants to the forestry and agricultural sector, natural resources staff, wildlife biologists, native people and landscape planners.

Awards and recognition for work in the north

Bill received two major awards for his northern research. In 1997 he received the most prestigious award of the Canadian Botanical Association, the Lawson Medal for his work on the distribution, ecology, classification and identification of the plants of the Yukon Territory, gathered together in his monumental volume of 643 pages published by NRC press in 1996. A second updated edition of the book was published by the National Research Council in 2000.

In 2006, Bill received the Yukon Biodiversity Awareness Award in recognition of his enormous contribution to our understanding of the Yukon flora. As well as the ”Flora of the Yukon Territory,” Bill published eight articles on the flora, and he was tireless in bringing current information to as many people as he could. The biodiversity award plaque included a photo of one of Yukon’s rarest plants, McBride’s Phacelia (Phacelia mollis) which is a Beringian endemic (confined to the unglaciated area of Alaska and Yukon). On the 6th of July in 1984, Bill was collecting specimens of this plant in the turfy tundra in the Cloudy Range in the Ogilvie Mountains.

Bill has had three plants named in his honour:

Arabis codyi Mulligan (Rhodora 97: 151. 1995) with a type locality west of Kluane Lake. Ranunculus codyanus Boivin (Can Field-Nat. 65: 3-4. 1951) with type locality at Coral Harbour, Southampton Island. Saxifraga codyana Zhmylev, (Bull. Moscow Soc. Nat. Biol. Ser. 97(1):95-96. 1992) collected at 69° 13’ N, -139° 35’ W, in the Buckland Hills, Firth River drainage, Ivvavik National Park (then known as Northern Yukon National Park Reserve). This taxon was previously treated as S. bronchialis ssp. codyana,

Other achievements

Although it is not the main subject here, Bill had a number of other accomplishments including particularly his two books and numerous papers on ferns, his plant inventories of various regions including his book on the plants of Riding Mountain National Park, his 50 years of service as a business manager of one of Canada’s leading biodiversity and field biology journals, and 62 years of service with the herbarium of the Department of Agriculture of which 21 was post-retirement as an Honourary Research Associate. The following references provide some additional information on these achievements and some of the resulting awards. Those of us who knew Bill well will remember him for his achievements, but also as a very reliable friend, always ready to help, always ready with a smile, a pun, a song or a joke.



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