Obituary: G. Ledyard Stebbins Jr.
anamaria at GRINNELL.BERKELEY.EDU
Sat Jan 22 08:18:40 CST 2000
Linkname: G. Ledyard Stebbins Jr.
G. Ledyard Stebbins Jr.
New York Times Saturday, January 22, 2000 [LINK]
Professor G. Ledyard Stebbins Jr., one of the leading evolutionary
biologists and foremost botanists of the 20th century, died Wednesday
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.
The synthesis has been described by Stephen Jay Gould, evolutionary
biologist at Harvard University, as ``one of the half-dozen major
scientific achievements in our century.''
In his role in this seminal event, Professor Stebbins is credited with
bringing modern evolutionary thinking to the study of plants.
``Evolutionary botany is G. Ledyard Stebbins,'' said Vassiliki Betty
Smocovitis, a historian of science at the University of Florida. ``He
is the discipline. He founded it on his own.''
Professor Stebbins, who was professor emeritus at the University of
California at Davis, earned his right to such praise with the
publication in 1950 of ``Variation and Evolution in Plants.''
In the book, he 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 given.
Professor Stebbins was said to have a particularly detailed knowledge
of the flora of California. Francisco Ayala, an evolutionary biologist
at the University of California at Irvine, said Professor Stebbins
seemed to know every plant in the world, not just scientifically, but
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.
At the time, the field of botany was undergoing changes. Once confined
to studying dusty herbarium specimens, botanists interested in plant
species and their relationships were discovering the modern techniques
available for studying chromosomes and genetics. Professor Stebbins,
drawn to these innovations, barely finished graduate school, nearly
becoming caught in the political and intellectual cross- fire within
the botany department between those intent on keeping genetics out and
those intent on bringing it in.
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. He organized weekly field trips
that got people into the habit of the conservationist's credo of
``taking nothing but pictures, leaving nothing but footprints.''
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 received numerous awards, including the National
Medal of Science, the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society of London, the
Verrill Medal and the Lewis Prize. In his honor, UC Davis renamed Cold
Canyon Reserve, 277 acres near Lake Berryessa, Stebbins Cold Canyon
Reserve in 1980.
He served as president of the American Society of Naturalists, the
Western Society of Naturalists, the Botanical 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
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