George Ledyard Stebbins, Jr. (1906-2000)
Foremost Evolutionary Botanist and Biosystematist Member*

    George Ledyard Stebbins Jr., one of the leading evolutionary biologists and foremost botanists of the twentieth century, died at his home in Davis, California, on Wednesday, January 19th, 2000, at the age of 94. Dr. Stebbins was believed to be the last surviving, founding member of the group in the Bay Area (of San Francisco) that came to be known as the Biosystematists.

    George Ledyard Stebbins, Jr. was born January 6, 1906, in Lawrence, New York. Although he entered Harvard University in 1924 intending to study law, his interests quickly changed to botany, graduating with a Ph.D. in 1931. After graduate school, Dr. Stebbins became a lecturer at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. In 1935, Stebbins joined the genetics department at the University of California in Berkeley, and immediately began working on a research project on the cytogenetics of the genus Crepis (now family Asteraceae) under the guidance and sponsorship of Ernest B. Babcock, a geneticist and pioneer in plant breeding. While continuing his work with Babcock, Stebbins also pursued his own interests in cytogenetics and systematics and by 1939 he had secured for himself a position in genetics at Berkeley. It was in these early years in California that Stebbins met and began a close and long association with the prominent Drosophilageneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who was then working in Thomas H. Morgan's laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena (later at the University of California in Davis), and to have a important influence on Stebbins. In 1950, Stebbins left the Berkeley campus to move to the University of California in Davis, where he was instrumental in establishing the Department of Genetics, and remained there until his retirement in 1973.

    Along with Dobzhansky (1900 - 1975), animal systematist Ernst Mayr, and paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1902 - 1984), Stebbins is considered one of the "architects" of the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and 1940s, an intellectual watershed and historic turning point that brought together research in cytology, genetics, systematics, paleontology into a common evolutionary framework. This synthesis, which had the effect of reconciling the often opposing views of laboratory-oriented geneticists and natural history oriented systematists, made Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection the centerpiece of the new discipline of evolutionary biology. In this role, Stebbins is credited with bringing a modern framework to the study of plant evolution, and he is perhaps best known for his book Variation and Evolution in Plants,published by Columbia University Press (NY) in 1950. In the 1940s, Stebbins also played an important role in organizing the nascent Society for the Study of Evolution, of which he became the third president in 1948, and used his position to speak out for the botanical side of evolutionary studies, a field that had been dominated by zoologists.

    Stebbins was an early and active conservationist, organizing local field trips and efforts to conserve native plants and habitats, ultimately serving as president of the California Native Plant Society. In 1967, his efforts were instrumental in preventing the destruction of a beach on the Monterrey Peninsula he referred to as "Evolution Hill", along the central coast of California (now, the S. F. B. Morse Botanical Area). Stebbins also served as president of the American Society of Naturalists, the Western Society of Naturalists, the Botanical Society of America, and as secretary general of the Union of Biological Sciences. Stebbins received numerous awards during his long, distinguished career, including the National Medal of Science, the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society of London, the Verrill Medal, the Lewis Prize, and was named a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1980, the University of California at Davis renamed the 277 acre Cold Canyon Reserve, near Lake Berryessa, California, the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve.

    In addition to Variation and Evolution in Plantsand some 250 journal articles, Stebbins has written several books on evolution including Processes of Organic Evolution(1st ed. 1966), Flowering Plants: Evolution Above the Species Level(1974), Chromosomal Evolution in Plants(1971), and the textbook Evolution(1977) with co-authors Dobzhansky, Francisco Ayala (now at UC Irvine), and James Valentine (now at UC Berkeley).

For further reading:

Smocovitis, V. B. 1988. Botany and the evolutionary synthesis: the life and work of G. Ledyard Stebbins, Jr. Ph.D. thesis, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York.

Smocovitis, V. B. 1997. G. Ledyard Stebbins, Jr. and the evolutionary synthesis (1924 - 1950). American Journal of Botany 84: 1625-1637. (For PDF reprint of this article, click here).

*Excerpts in part from obituary in Friday, 21 January 2000, edition of the New York Timesby Carol K. Yoon. "Dr. G. Ledyard Stebbins Jr., one of the leading evolutionary biologists and foremost botanists of the 20th century, died on Wednesday (January 19, 2000) at his home in Davis, California. He was 94".