W. N. Suksdorf rebuttal

Scott Sundberg sundbers at BCC.ORST.EDU
Tue Apr 2 12:10:21 CST 1996

The following message was sent as a rebuttal to the suggestion that
Wilhelm Suksdorf described new species for profit, which was included in
a recent posting to TAXACOM.  If you have comments, please respond
directly to Rhoda Love at rglove at oregon.uoregon.edu  - Scott Sundberg

  --------forwarded message from Rhoda Love follows---------

I have been studying the life and work of Wilhelm N. Suksdorf (1850-1932)
for many years.  I became interested in Suksdorf when I worked on our
native hawthorns for my PhD at the University of Oregon in the 70s.  (C. S.
Sargent named a variety of the black hawthorn for Suksdorf, its
discoverer).  I have traced a number of Suksdorf's collecting routes in
Klickitat County, Washington, and relocated his "farm in Falcon Valley."  I
have also read with interest the long, affectionate, biographical article
(1955) on Suksdorf by Harold St. John, who knew him well, and Bill Weber's
remarkable 1942 Masters Thesis done at WSU. (Bill was able to interview a
number of Suksdorf's living relatives only 8 years or so after the
botanist's death.)  I have also had a chance to read a number of Suksdorf's
private letters to  Oregon botanists which are on file at the University of
Oregon and Oregon State University.

My studies of Suksdorf lead me to argue that you have misunderstood the
motivations of the man and that you do a disservice to his memory and
trivialize his considerable contribuition to NW botany by implying that his
tendency to recognize new species and varieties was done for monetary gain.

Suksdorf was a shy, retiring, and perhaps , at times, mentally troubled
individual who was nurtured and protected by his large family which had
immigrated from Germany and settled at Bingen, Washington on the Columbia
River.  Although Suksdorf cannot be said to have had regular employment by
today's standards, he was well-cared for by his family.  For a number of
years, he worked at Harvard with Asa Gray.  And, later, he had an honorary
appointment and received an honorary degree from WSU.

Suksdorf was a gentle giant among our Northwest pioneer botanists. Like a
great many of his contemporaries, he sold sets of his herbarium sheets.
Hundreds of these have found their way to major herbaria, where they stand
as an important epitaph to this quiet and retiring man who roamed the hills
and valleys of the Columbia River Country, learning Indian uses of plants
and giving his own german names to land forms.  Like many field botanists
before and since, Suksdorf had a keen eye for phenotypic differences
between populations, and often suggested that new species or varieties be
recognized.  That the herbarium-based botanists sometimes did not agree
with him, did prove a frustration to him.  At times, he tried publishing
his own names, but his command of scientific English was limited, and his
attempts to publish in German journals was criticized by academic botanists
in this country.

Near the end of his life, he did begin publication of his own
German-language journal Werwenda, and he certainly had a bee in his bonnet
about the genus Amsinckia.  But I can appreciate his frustration.  Once my
students and I sat  near the Crooked River in Oregon and tried to key the
Amsinckias there using the Hitchcock an Cronquist key.  Obviously
hybridization and introgression are rampant in certain populations of the
genus, and, Suksdorf, superb field botanist that he was, became convinced
that he could recognize true-breeding forms.

At any rate, over 70 species of plants were named for Wilhelm Nikolaus
Suksdorf in recognition of his lifetime of indefatigable observation and
documentation.  Asa Gray recognized his worth, even if some other academics
did not.  I'm sorry that you cast a black mark on the name of this gentle
soul on the internet before learning more of the details of his remarkable

Yours most sincerely,

Dr. Rhoda M. Love
Eugene, Oregon

Glen or Rhoda Love  (503) 345-6241

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