BEN # 240

Adolf Ceska aceska at
Wed Feb 2 02:00:31 EST 2000

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No. 240                              February 1, 2000

aceska at                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:
       /archive/2000/01/22/MN76135.DTL ]

From: Arthur Kruckeberg <ark at>

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."

From: Curtis Clark <jcclark at>

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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