G. Ledyard Stebbins 1906-2000
The founder of the field of evolutionary botany died Wednesday, January 19, 2000, in Davis California. He was professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis.
Before we knew genes as DNA, a long time ago when we understood genes only by what they did and not by their actual code, two giants in the field of evolutionary biology, G. Ledyard Stebbins and Theodosius Dobzhansky, would ride their horses in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, discussing evolutionary theory and stooping down occasionally to collect interesting specimens along the way. Stebbin's called these specimens his "horseback hybrids." In the personal evolution of Stebbins an east coast professor became a friendly cowboy; he left the comforts and security of the eastern campus for the western field where he would rope up the disparate facts of evolutionary biology with great skill.
I knew Stebbins mostly by the profound influence he had upon his students, who would become my teachers. He was also the author of one of my university textbooks, simply titled Evolution, which he wrote with Dobzhansky, F. Ayala, and J. Valentine.
He did not make things easy for his students. His writing was often incredibly dense. He felt no need to use a hundred penny words when a single dollar word would do. To him, a paragraph was not complete until it had at least twenty profound thoughts jammed into it.
While speaking to an audience he would sometimes get so absorbed by his material he would bump into things or fall off podiums. But he was always willing to answer questions thoughtfully, and he was very approachable. In 1972 he received the University of California at Davis Distinguished Teaching Award.
Stebbins was born in Lawrence, New York, to wealthy parents who had a keen interest in Natural History. His mother taught him the names and songs of common birds, and his father taught him about life in the tide pools near their summer home in Maine.
He entered Harvard, planning to become a lawyer, but his interest in biology soon won out, and there he received his Ph.D. in biology. He taught several years at Colgate University, in Hamilton N.Y., but decided in 1935 to accept a job at the University of California, Berkeley, working as a junior research associate for geneticist Ernest Brown Babcock (1877-1954).
Their goal was to find a plant species as amicable to cytogenic genetic studies as Drosophila (fruit flies) were to the study of animal genetics. With Babcock's encouragement and support, Stebbins became well established as a geneticist at Berkely.
The unique qualities of the California flora, and the openly collaborative atmosphere of California research institutions was attracting a growing number of evolutionists and geneticists to the San Francisco Bay area. In 1937 (or 1935, according to some sources) , Babcock and Danish geneticist Jens Clausen (1890-1961) of Stanford University organized an informal society named the "Biosystemists." Stebbins attended the very first meeting of the group, and in 1937 attended David Keck's (1903-1995) lecture about Alfred Wegener's very controversial theory of continental drift. Stebbins also began his fruitful collaborations with Dobzhansky at this time.
In these days of protests against "genetically engineered" agricultural commodities, it is interesting to note that Stebbins used a newly discovered technique for doubling a plant's chromosomal number to create a new species of wild grass, Ehraharta erecta, which was then introduced to the natural environment in 1944. Life wasn't so complicated then as it is now. There were no great debates about the ethics of such an experiment.
In 1950, Stebbins' publication of Variation and Evolution in Plants, established him as the first biologist to apply modern evolutionary theory to the study of complex plants.
Rare plants always interested Stebbins. In 1968, while president of the California Native Plant Society, he started a card file of California plants with a distribution of less than one hundred miles. These were sent out to other California botanists for comments, and many more plants were suggested for inclusion into the list, which soon exceeded 800 species and sub-species.
Lists such as these have proved to be the bane of property developers since the first "Earth Days" of the early nineteen seventies. Now that laws have been written in California and the United States protecting such rare species from extinction, the builders of new shopping centers and housing developments live in fear of finding a rare plant on their property.
In 1980 a 577 acre University of California Nature preserve was named in Stebbin's honor -- The Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve. It's about twenty miles from the campus where he taught, and his ashes will be scattered there.
"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." -- Theodosius Dobzhansky