Cambridge botanist Dr S. Max Walters, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year, has followed a distinguished career as researcher, teacher, Flora Europaea editor, popular writer and persistent advocate of close botanical and social links with continental Europe.

Max Walters, born on 23 May 1920, grew up in Stocksbridge, near Sheffield in Yorkshire. Then a land of coal and steel, the so-called ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’ was and remains a hotbed of non-conformist values and deeply felt social ideals. This background profoundly influenced Walters, not least because his parents firmly believed in the very best of those ideals: “They wanted my brother and me to go on to higher education.”

So they did. After Penistone Grammar School (where he met Lorna, whom he married in 1948), Walters went up to Cambridge in 1938. The next year, on the strength of his familiarity with mountain plants – a travelling scholarship had enabled him to spend the previous summer at a Swiss botanical institute – he joined a Botany School expedition to the Cairngorms of eastern Scotland. Here he surveyed vegetation alongside several distinguished ecologists and taxonomists, including E.F. ‘Heff’ Warburg, who first set him on to the arctic-alpine lady’s mantles (Alchemilla), a genus that he has studied for 50 years. And, as Walters recalls, “We collected plants but we were aware of the conservation implications”.

A committed pacifist, on the outbreak of World War II, Walters took up hospital work in Sheffield. There he witnessed the savage Luftwaffe air-raids on the city. He later moved to a hospital in Bristol, an opportunity to observe the flora of the West Country. His first publication, on flower colour variation in Sweet Violet (Viola odorata), derives from this period. The war over, he returned to Cambridge, where Professor Harry Godwin, best known for his research on fossil pollen in peat-bogs, supervised his PhD study of club-rushes (Eleocharis), giving general advice while wisely letting a talented student follow his own nose.

Godwin also encouraged Walters to visit Europe. He spent a period in 1947 in Linnaeus’ beloved Uppsala, immersing himself in the country – “A grand-daughter of Strindberg taught me Swedish!” – and initiating a lifelong collaboration with fellow Europeans. Walters was fiercely Europhile long before such a stance was ‘popular or profitable’. Above all he would never break faith with colleagues in Eastern Europe, isolated over four decades of political division. He did, alas, miss the convivial birth of Flora Europaea over glasses of Calvados in a Paris café at the 1954 Botanical Congress. Nevertheless, the Flora team rapidly brought him on board as a valued European and botanical all-rounder.

Walters was a respected Lecturer and Curator of the Herbarium from 1949 until his appointment as the Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden in 1973. He involved Cambridge in British floristic botany, notably the 1964 Atlas of the British Flora with his friend Franklyn Perring. Once at the Garden there followed an exciting late flowering of Cambridge botany, with Flora Europaea in full swing, several international conferences, and a procession of European visitors through the Director’s official residence, Cory Lodge. It was particularly stimulating for students to be welcomed into a happy family home, with cats, good food, tea and wine, where famous botanists, suitably relaxed, would gladly answer our diffident questions on plant taxonomy.

Walters took the Garden to the forefront of UK plant conservation. A particularly innovative project was to conserve rare plants of East Anglia on- and off-site – today we would call it an Integrated Conservation Strategy. Educational projects involving local teachers and schools were also started. Back in 1955 he had been a prime mover in setting up the Cambridge Naturalists’ Trust, and its first reserve at Hayley Wood. “We based the idea on Ted Smith’s Lincolnshire Trust.”

In Cambridge Walters found his natural milieu, for he is the archetypal Cambridge don, a natural teacher armed with erudition and charm, and a scholar with a meticulous eye for detail. He talks with affection of university friends like classicist-botanist John Raven, his co-author of Mountain Flowers (1958). He has always brought a strong historical perspective to botany, possessing a fund of stories of people, places and events that have shaped the modern botanical scene.

He rightly sees the genesis of achievements such as Flora Europaea and the Atlas as firmly rooted in the wide-ranging, stimulating intellectual world of early to mid-20th century Cambridge botany. Max Walters is a living monument to that great academic tradition.

By John Akeroyd

Reproduced from Plant Talk No 21 (April 2000)

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April 2000

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