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William Louis Stern (1926–2021)

In: IAWA Journal
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Peter Gasson
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Rusty Russell
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Lee Newsom
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Regis Miller
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Pieter Baas
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William Louis (Bill) Stern passed away on 1 November 2021 at the age of 95. Bill had a long and illustrious career as a botanist. He was a life member of IAWA. From 1951 to around 1982 his focus was on wood anatomy and then his attentions moved on to orchids, culminating in volume 10 of the Anatomy of the Monocotyledons: Orchidaceae in 2014. Bill’s last major wood publication was the incredibly useful Index Xylariorum III (IX3) in 1988, of which he had published a first version in 1957. There’s a photo in IAWA Bulletin 9(4): 394 of him receiving the first printed copy of IX3 from Pieter Baas in Madison in October 1988. Peter first met Bill at Kew and inherited the task of compiling the next version IX4, quickly realising just how big a task this was, especially since Bill hadn’t had the benefits of email! The latest iteration of IX4 can be found on both the IAWA and GTTN websites. Thirty-three years since IX3 younger wood anatomists may not realise just how influential Bill has been in the wood science world. After spending 1944–1946 in the US Naval Reserve he went to Rutgers University where he gained his BS in 1950 and then the University of Illinois for his MS in 1951 and PhD in botany 1954. From 1953 to 1960 he was instructor and curator and then professor of wood anatomy at Yale University School of Forestry and then moved to the Division of Woods in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution until 1967 when he became Professor of Botany at the University of Maryland until 1979. The Yale wood collection is now at the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Lab in Madison under the acronym SJRw, in honour of its founder Samuel J. Record.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Left to right A.K. Chowdhury (1902–1978), Barry Tomlinson (1932–), Sherwin Carlquist (1930–2021), and Bill Stern (1926–2021) in 1961 at the 10th Pacific Science Congress in Honolulu, Hawai’i.

Citation: IAWA Journal 43, 1-2 (2022) ; 10.1163/22941932-00002198

Regis, one of Bill’s students recalls “In 1969 Bill and his wife Flory took me to Yale to get sectioning blocks of Flacourtiaceae for my thesis. When we arrived, the Yale collection was in a room where the graduate students had pushed cabinets and tables up against the SJRw cabinets so that we could not get to the drawers to find the specimens I needed. The Yale collection was arranged by number so we had to dig into many drawers to find the specimens. Bill was so mad when he saw this mess that after getting my specimens he sent a scathing message to the head guy at Yale. Wish I had a copy of the letter but I did read it before he put it in an envelope and slid it under the office door. I think it was a Saturday or Sunday so no one was around. That began the process of Yale trying to SELL the collection. Eventually FPL BOUGHT the collection by giving Yale some sort of FS grant (perhaps $30 000) to do more or less whatever they wanted.”.

Lee, another of Bill’s students remembers him as “a wonderful professor, mentor, and friend. He could be so stern (in fact) and serious in demeanour, but at the same time, had such an upbeat attitude, along with a nutty/goofy laugh when he was tickled about something. He was definitely a true scholar. It was my privilege also to work closely with Bill on the cataloguing and curation of the wood collection at the University of Florida Herbarium (FLASw). That collection originated with a 1938 transfer of wood blocks and other herbarium materials from Dr. H.P. Brown and the School of Forestry, Syracuse University. The wood collection was greatly expanded and enhanced under Bill Stern’s tenure at the university, and it was (and is) actively used in teaching and research, including by archaeobotanists and palaeobotanists.”

Rusty Russell, one of Bill’s students at the University of Maryland considers him to be his number one mentor: “Bill expected your best effort and let you know in no uncertain terms if you failed to measure up. But behind his tough facade, he was rooting for you to succeed. Bill’s efforts to elevate the utility and visibility of wood collections were critical to their development over the last 50 years. As an undergrad at Maryland in Bill’s anatomy class, he impressed upon me the fundamental nature of plant architecture. And for more than four decades at the National Herbarium, we curated the wood collection even when it was getting little attention from researchers. Even before I retired, however, the pendulum was shifting, and now the value of properly vouchered wood samples is in the mainstream. I’m thrilled that the IAWA did that wonderful homage to Bill while he was still alive so that he could know what a seminal impact he made, not just upon xylaria, but upon the people that work in them.”

During his time with the Smithsonian Bill spent 1963–1964 at the Philippine Forest Products Institute in Los Banos. In 1967 he was appointed Professor of Botany at the University of Maryland, was program director in systematic biology for the National Science Foundation in 1978–1979 and then moved to the University of Florida in 1979. He was emeritus professor there from 2002. Bill was a member of IAWA Council from 1961 to 1972 and wrote a detailed and fascinating account of the early history of IAWA (1982).

Bill’s list of achievements and appointments is too long to provide in detail. He edited several journals, especially Tropical Woods from 1953–1960 (all issues are on the IAWA website as pdfs). He was also associate editor of BioScience (1963–1966), Economic Botany (1965–1975), an editorial committee member of American Journal of Botany (1967–1979), editor and founder of Biotropica (1969–1972), editor of Memoirs of the Torrey Botanical Club, associate editor of World of Wood (1984 onwards) and on the editorial board of Phytomorphology (1996 onwards). He was President of the Botanical Society of America (1985–1986). As well as editing he held various appointments including membership of the Advisory board of Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden (1965–1982), Trustee of Fairchild Tropical Garden (1980–1986), and Kampong Center for Tropical Botany and Horticulture (1985 onwards).

Bill’s teaching and research at Yale, Maryland and Florida Universities from 1950 onwards means that innumerable students and colleagues benefited from his friendship and knowledge. His enormous contribution to botany in general and wood anatomy in particular will be long remembered by those who knew him, and his legacy will continue far into the future. He will be sorely missed.

*

Corresponding author; email: P.Gasson@kew.org

References

  • Stern WL. 1982. Highlights in the early history of the International Association of Wood Anatomists. In: Baas P (ed.), New perspectives in wood anatomy: 121. Martinus Nijhoff/Dr W. Junk Publishers, The Hague/Boston/London.

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  • Biography of Dr William L. Stern No.311HL: https://www.woodcollectors.org/william-l-stern.html.

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