January 28, 2000

Pioneer biologist Stebbins dies

By Sylvia Wright

G. Ledyard Stebbins

G. Ledyard Stebbins, so brilliant that his theories on plant evolution established the discipline, yet so chronically absorbed in his thoughts that he once drove 120 miles without noticing a dead rattlesnake on the hood of his car, died Jan. 19 at his Davis home. He was 94.

"There’s no doubt whatsoever that UC Davis’ fame in the general field of genetics and evolutionary biology rests squarely on the shoulders of Ledyard Stebbins," Chancellor Larry Vanderhoef said. "He has long been recognized internationally as a major leader and pioneer in the biological sciences. His passing will be mourned by his many friends and colleagues here and around the world."

"He was certainly the world’s leading expert on plant evolution," said Francisco Ayala, Bren Professor of Ecology at UC Irvine and Stebbins’ longtime friend and professional colleague.

Stebbins became a professor of genetics at UC Davis in 1950, just after he published Variation and Evolution in Plants. It was one of four texts considered to be the classics that formulate the modern theory of evolution, Ayala said. A national symposium revisiting the contributions of that text will be held at UC Irvine next week and Stebbins had planned to attend, even though he had been ill with cancer since May. A speech in tribute to Stebbins will be made by eminent botanist Peter Raven, Engelmann Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis.

The seeds of Stebbins’ lifelong passion for nature were planted on walks with his mother, who taught her children the names and songs of birds, and with his father, who took the children prowling through Atlantic tide pools. At Harvard University in 1925, Stebbins was introduced to Darwin’s theory of evolution. As a junior the following year, he decided to become a botanist.

Darwin’s theory was undergoing rigorous testing at the time, and in the 1930s and ’40s, scientists from many disciplines developed modifications that satisfied most of them. Dubbed "the modern synthesis," the new theory continued to emphasize natural selection and the gradual pace of evolution. Its architects were some of the best scientific minds of the time, and Stebbins was one of them.

Evolution is the study of how living things change over time. Stebbins figured out how broad evolutionary principles applied to plants. "I pointed out and still point out," he said in 1989, "certain differences among higher plants and higher animals that make it necessary to understand species in a different way. Certain things happen in plants that don’t happen, or happen to a lesser degree, in animals."

In 1952, Stebbins was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Over time, he continued to expand his thinking about evolution and plants in other books and important papers.

"He was extremely centered," said Mel Greene, UC Davis emeritus professor of genetics. "His whole life was evolution and evolutionary botany." Ayala said, "He was very intense and dedicated. Working in the field, he would pay no attention to the proper time of eating or anything else."

In addition to his research achievements, Stebbins was an excellent mentor to graduate students, many of whom have become very accomplished scientists, and a well-liked teacher of undergraduates. "He was a very engaging lecturer, very energetic and enthusiastic, because he knew the subject well and was enamored of it," Ayala said. "And he was enamored of teaching. He loved to be loved by the students." In 1972, he received the campus’s Distinguished Teaching Award.

He retired in 1973, at age 67, but stayed active in research and writing books for another 20 years.

In 1979, he was awarded the National Medal of Science, the country’s highest award for scientific accomplishment. In 1980, the University of California regents named a UC natural reserve in his honor–Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, a 577-acre parcel about 20 miles from campus. Stebbins said that honor was far more satisfying than having his name on a campus building. His ashes will be scattered there.

It was in a similar wildland setting that the rattlesnake episode began, Ayala said. "We were collecting in Pope Valley, near Napa, and in the process we killed a rattlesnake with a stick. Not knowing what to do with it, we put it on the hood of the car we were sharing."

They continued working. After it grew dark, Ayala drove them back to Davis. ("We didn’t let Ledyard drive because he was prone to see some hybrid plant by the roadside and forget about keeping the car on the road.") The next morning, Stebbins drove the car 60 miles to UC Berkeley, delivered a lecture, and drove it home–with no notice of the rattlesnake that was still resting on the hood. Upon his return, he told Ayala, "I think something strange is wrong with this car. When I came out of the lecture, about 30 students were standing around looking at it."

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 30, at the Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center. A gathering of family and friends will follow from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Church of Davis, 27074 Patwin Road.

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