BEN # 240
aceska at victoria.tc.ca
Wed Feb 2 02:00:31 EST 2000
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No. 240 February 1, 2000
aceska at victoria.tc.ca Victoria, B.C.
Dr. A. Ceska, P.O.Box 8546, Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 3S2
GEORGE LEDYARD STEBBINS JR. (1906 - 2000)
Professor G. Ledyard Stebbins Jr., one of the leading evolution-
ary biologists and foremost botanists of the 20th century, died
Wednesday, January 19, at his home in Davis. He was 94.
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
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 Botani-
cal 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:
ART KRUCKEBERG REMINISCES ABOUT G. LEDYARD STEBBINS
From: Arthur Kruckeberg <ark at u.washington.edu>
During my graduate days at UC Berkeley, Stebbins became a focal
point of my intellectual growth. I took his course in Evolution-
ary Mechanisms around l948, at the time he was writing his
seminal book, "Variation and Evolution in Plants" (Columbia
Univ. Press, l950). 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 Steb-
bins. 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."
TO INSPIRE, TO CHALLENGE, TO ANGER: A PERSONAL REFLECTION
ON THE LEGACY OF LEDYARD STEBBINS
From: Curtis Clark <jcclark at csupomona.edu>
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 Olym-
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
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.
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