ISSN 1188-603X

No. 467 April 16, 2013 Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O. Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2


From: Erich Haber, 60 Baywood Drive, Stittsville, Ontario K2S 2H5 Canada [Based on a more comprehensive treatment in the Canadian Field-Naturalist 126(1): 61-67]

Jim Soper was born in Hamilton, Ontario, 9 April 1916 to Herbert Armitage Soper (1875-1944) and Anna Eliza Gertrude (née Cooper, 1880-1917). He was the youngest of five children.

Jim entered McMaster University in 1935. The yearbook for his freshman year lists his entrance scholarships as the Harold Matthews Memorial Scholarship for First Place Science and the Third Carter Scholarship for Wentworth. Jim completed his undergraduate degree in Honours Chemistry (1938) and his M.A. in Biology (1939). His supervisor arranged to have Jim serve as a field assistant to Hugh M. Raup on his botanical exploration of the Brintnell Lake area (now known as Glacier Lake) in the Mackenzie Mountains, NWT (Raup 1939). On this trip, Jim joined the entire Raup family, including Lucy Raup and their two young boys, Karl and David. Jim was greatly influenced by his association with the Raups, who treated him as a member of the family. Jim completed his Ph.D. at Harvard (1943) under Raup and M. L. Fernald. His thesis was a study of the flora of the Lake Erie region of southern Ontario.

Following his studies at Harvard, Jim served with the Operational Research Section of the Royal Canadian Air Force. With the end of World War II in 1945, Jim took a position as an Agricultural Scientist in what is now the old herbarium building in the Arboretum of the Central Experimental Farm, Ottawa. Here he met Jean Morgan of Montreal, the botany librarian.

Jim and Jean married in August 1946 and moved to Toronto in the fall, where Jim took up his new teaching position in botany as Special Lecturer and Curator of the Vascular Plant Herbarium at the University of Toronto. Over the course of the following 21 years, Jim combined a teaching career with active botanical research on the flora of Ontario. He taught General Botany, Taxonomy, Economic Botany, and Plant Geography. Jim had a special interest in documenting the Carolinian flora of southwestern Ontario and in the shrubs of Ontario. His fieldwork also took Jim to northern Ellesmere Island, for a study of the Lake Hazen flora as part of International Geophysical Year projects in 1958. With the completion of the Lake Superior portion of the TransCanada Highway in1960, Jim undertook field excursions along the newly accessible shoreline of the lake and published papers on the arctic-alpine elements. Jim also conducted fieldwork on Vancouver Island, in Revelstoke National Park, and in Glacier National Park. When he was on holidays, much of his Ontario fieldwork was done with the family in tow. While the kids played, Jim kept busy with fieldwork.

To facilitate making herbarium labels and mapping the distribution of Ontario plants, Jim undertook to learn FORTRAN. He was one of the first in North America to promote computer mapping of phytogeographic data (Soper 1964, 1966). During Jim's tenure at the University of Toronto herbarium, it grew substantially from 60,545 to 156,831, with his personal collections totalling more than 10,000. Jim documented his sight records using preprinted checklist cards and compiled an extensive card catalogue of collections and localities.

In 1967, Jim took up the position of Chief Botanist at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, National Museums of Canada, Ottawa. He continued to promote the computerization of collections at the Botany Division of the Museum (now the Canadian Museum of Nature). Jim also became an avid student of French, developing a working facility in the language.

On retirement in 1981, Jim continued his research on the flora of Ontario. He followed up on his early work on the arctic-alpine flora along the shoreline of Lake Superior (Given and Soper 1981) and completed work on the shrubs of Ontario (Soper and Heimburger 1982).

Jim is the author or co-author of 3 books and over 60 botanical papers. A sedge (Carex soperi Raup) and two varieties of plants (Celtis tenuifolia var. soperi Boivin and Houstonia longifolia Gaertn. var. soperi Boivin) were named after him. The sedge is now synonomized under the geographically widespread Thick-headed Sedge (Carex macloviana d'Urv.), and the two varieties are currently also included within the normal range of variation of their respective species, Dwarf Hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia) and Long-leaved Bluet (Houstonia longifolia). In 1977, Jim was awarded the Queen's Silver Jubilee Medal honouring Canadians who were considered to have made a significant contribution in important fields of endeavour.

Jim was a member of a number of societies and associations, such as the National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada (now the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society), the Royal Canadian Institute (President, 1962-1963), and the Canadian Botanical Association (Treasurer, 1968-1969, and President, 1982-1983). The McMaster yearbook for 1938, the year of Jim's graduation, provides insight into some of the young man's talents and interests: "Starting from Central Collegiate on the matriculation scholarship in Science and advancing to win the City of Hamilton scholarship in second year, Jim mixed Chemistry and Botany to get a fine grounding for graduate work. He combined badminton, music and flower collecting for diversions. Weakness-drawing everything he could see and then some."

Jim also developed considerable skill in playing the piano, especially classical music, and was a keen wildflower photographer. To improve his skills in painting and drawing, Jim attended classes at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto in 1965-1966 and in retirement, he began to specialize more seriously in painting watercolours of plants.

Overall, Jim was a quiet and reserved individual, highly organized, and tidy. He was very much disciplined about his health. He was an early riser, would take a brief nap after lunch, swim regularly, and do 5BX exercises. Jim had a dry sense of humour and loved play on words. He and Jean enjoyed bridge, and Jim loved crosswords and even made some up, in retirement, with his computer. In later years, Jim spent much time reading and was still driving up until a year before his death. After Jean had a fall in November 2011, they moved into a retirement home for a respite visit. Jim died peacefully after a short illness on 16 February 2012 in his 96th year. He is survived by his loving wife, Jean, his daughters, Nancy (Richard Stoneman), Mary (David Gladwin), and Daphne (James Boyce), and his son, Ian (Nicole Ratté). Jim's beautifully rendered watercolours, in the homes of family and friends, remain as a testament to his love for plants and their beauty.


I am indebted, in particular, to Jean, daughter Mary, and niece Sharon for providing insights into Jim's family history and family life. Deb Metsger and Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) volunteer Marilynn Murphy provided information on the collections of vascular plants at the University of Toronto, now held by the ROM. Paul Catling and Gisèle Mitrow, at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, provided a bibliographic compilation of Jim's publications that were on file at the Central Experimental Farm. [ A complete bibliography of Jim's work is given in the Canadian Field-Naturalist article.]

Literature Cited

Given, D. R., and J. H. Soper. 1981.
The arctic-alpine element of the vascular flora at Lake Superior. Publications in Botany 10. National Museum of Natural Sciences, National Museums of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. 7 pages.
Raup, H. M. 1939.
Botanical exploration of the Mackenzie Mountains. Bulletin of Popular Information. Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, Series 4 7(13): 69-72.
Soper, J. H. 1964.
Mapping the distribution of plants by machine. Canadian Journal of Botany 42: 1087-1110.
Soper, J. H. 1966.
Machine-plotting of phytogeographical data. Canadian Geographer 10: 15-26.
Soper, J. H., and M. L. Heimburger. 1982.
Shrubs of Ontario. Life Sciences Miscellaneous Publication. Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. 495 pages.

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