previous next

In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Gunnar Seidenfaden (1908-2001)

Dr. Gunnar Seidenfaden, Danish diplomat, explorer, naturalist, and expert in tropical Asiatic orchids died on 9 February 2001.

Gunnar Seidenfaden began his long and extraordinary career as a student of botany in Greenland in 1928. His talent for organization soon made him practical manager of Dr. Lauge Koch's geological expeditions to Eastern Greenland. He spent six summers doing field work, which resulted in numerous publications on arctic botany, including "The phytoplankton of the waters west of Greenland" with Julius Grøntved. In 1938, he won a Scandinavian contest for the best popular science book with Modern Arctic Exploration. However, by then he had changed his field of study to economy and political science. After graduation, he was employed by the Danish Ministry of Foreign affairs and travelled extensively in the Americas.

In 1955, he was appointed Danish ambassador in Thailand and six other Asiatic countries and four years later ambassador in the USSR. He used his spare time for a comeback in natural history and began a collaboration with the Royal Thai Forest Department, with which he arranged a number of collecting expeditions until the mid-1980s. His first large work on Thai orchids, the four-volume The Orchids of Thailand - A Preliminary List with Dr. Tem Smitinand, was in fact completed in Moscow. From 1961 to 1967 Seidenfaden was head of the Juridical Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After 1967 he left regular duty as a civil servant to spend more time on the orchid flora of Thailand, but because of his interest in natural history he had many special assignments as Danish envoy at international conferences on environmental matters, including the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (1973), The Helsinki Convention on the Protection of Marine Environment (1979), and the Bern Convention on Protection of European Wildlife (1979). He was later much disappointed too see how the Washington Convention developed in many countries into a bureaucratic tool for harassing people trying to exchange orchid material legally - even researchers and scientific institutions.

The most important of Seidenfaden's numerous works on Asiatic orchids may be the monograph series Orchid Genera in Thailand. The first volume (I-III) was published in 1975, and the last one (XIV) was the impressive "59 Vandoid Genera" in 1988. In this work, Seidenfaden suggested a new artificial classification of the "vandoids" based on pollinia. This is still the most usable framework for identification in this large and difficult group of orchids. A number of taxonomic and floristic notes on Thai orchids were published in the series Contributions to the Orchid Flora of Thailand" I-XIII (1969-1997). Some of the later works by Seidenfaden treated the orchid floras of surrounding countries, e.g. The Orchids of Indochina and The Orchids of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore with Jeffrey Wood, both published in 1992.

Seidenfaden's works are strictly taxonomic and floristic and have a distinct appearance because of the abundant detailed drawings, showing flowers and minute parts exactly as they appeared under the dissecting microscope. They were all drawn by himself with pencil and inked by various artists, the latest by Katja Anker, who took over the actual drawing work for the unfinished "Contribution 14". Seidenfaden disliked long, descriptive texts and often expressed the view that a good key, terse diagnoses, and accurate drawings are much better than elaborate descriptions. He described at least 120 new taxa and appears as author in more than 240 specific names, but he was in fact more proud of the hundreds of other names he reduced to synonyms after careful study. Generic eponyms include names as Seidenfadenia, Seidenfadeniella, Seidenfia, Gunnarella, Gunnarorchis, and Fadenia, a genus of fossil sharks from the Permian period described in 1932.

Gunnar Seidenfaden's living collection is kept in the Botanic Garden of Copenhagen, where it was recently transferred to a new greenhouse. However, he worked almost entirely at his home in Borsholm, a little town 50 km north of Copenhagen. His collection of orchids preserved in liquid with about 10,000 specimens was stored in the basement in strict taxonomic order. This meant that to see Dr. Seidenfaden and his material one had to visit "Borsholmgaard", which became an international orchid science salon. Many orchid people from all over the world -- amateurs, students, and academic professionals -- share pleasant memories about the hospitality of Gunnar and his wife Lulu, the special atmosphere of the place, and his never-failing enthusiasm for science, politics, natural history, and orchids.

Finn N. Rasmussen

In Memoriam: William T. Stearn (1911-2001)

The botanical world was saddened to lose Professor William T. Stearn on 9 May 2001. Still lecturing, researching, and publishing at the age of 90, he left monumental contributions in nomenclature, taxonomy, horticulture, and botanical history and illustration. In a career spanning eight decades, he wrote 470 books, articles, and monographs on everything from fungi to orchids, peonies to John Lindley. His Botanical Latin, first published in 1966, will likely still be consulted by systematists for decades to come.

Stearn was born the eldest son of a coachman in Cambridge, England, on 16 April 1911. As his father died prematurely and left the family with little income, the young William was unable to pay for a university education. Instead, he found employment as an apprentice in a Cambridge bookshop. In any free moments, including lunch hours and evenings, he read everything botanical that he could and took courses in German and bibliography.

At the age of 22 he became Librarian for the Royal Horticultural Society, learning Swedish, visiting botanical gardens in Europe, and publishing monographs of Epimedium (Berberidaceae) and Lilium. At the outbreak of war he served in the Royal Air Force in Britain, India, and Burma. Afterwards he returned to the RHS Library, where he worked for many years, producing such classics as the RHS Dictionary of Gardening and The Art of Botanical Illustration.

In 1953 Stearn became a member of the Botany Department of the Natural History Museum in London. While there, using his unique combination of knowledge of botanical history and expertise in Swedish, Latin, Greek, German, and Dutch, he wrote the 170-page introduction to Linnaeus's Species Plantarum, for which he received the Gold Medal from the Linnean Society of London.

After his retirement in 1976, his literary output was just as prodigious, often assisted by this wife Ruth. Among his recent orchid books were The Orchid Paintings of Franz Bauer (with Joyce Stewart) and John Lindley 1799-1865: Gardener-Botanist and Pioneer Orchidologist, which he edited in celebration of the bicentenary of Lindley's birth.

Among the many other honours granted to Stearn were doctorates from the universities of Leiden, Cambridge, and Uppsala, the Veitch Memorial Medal and Victoria Medal of Honour from the Royal Horticultural Society, and Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). From 1977 until 1983 he was Visiting Professor at the Department of Botany of Cambridge University, where decades earlier he had taught himself the plant sciences.

We send our condolences to Mrs. Stearn, his son, and two daughters, along with our conviction that the world will not see his like again.

Alec Pridgeon

Title Page
17th World Orchid Conference
Website News

July 2001.
Copyright The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.