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Bastiaan Meeuse, J.D.: 1916-1999.
Dr. Bastiaan Meeuse, a botany professor retired from the University of Washington, died in Kirkland, Washington, in July. During five decades of research he focused on the voodoo lily (Sauromatum guttatum (Wall.) Schott. Araceae), a plant with one of nature's foulest floral odors, seeking to unlock some of the mysteries about a plant that generates heat along with stench. Its huge, smelly flowers, which can weigh up to a half-pound and get as hot as 108 degrees inside, made it "a wonderful botanical guinea pig," according to Meeuse. He said that his work in the lab at times shrouded him in "an odor that would drive skunks away. Even my cat, Blackie," he once said, "won't come near me when the smell of the lily is on my clothes." His research advanced understanding of the oxidation process in the cells and tissues of plants and animals and pollination of plants. He wrote the textbook, The Story of Pollination (1961), and co-authored, with Scan Morris, The Sex Life of Plants (198 4). Dr. Meeuse and a series of collaborators published about 200 papers on the voodoo lily over 50 years. In a paper in 1987 he identified the substance behind the heat-producing "respiratory explosion" as salicylic acid, related to aspirin and useful as a pain-killing analgesic, similar in action to the glycoside salicin in the bark of the white willow and wintergreen leaves. In the 1950s, he discovered a moss enzyme that burns oxalic acid. This enzyme has been used to regulate the blood of people whose circulatory systems overproduce oxalic acid, a condition that could result in a potentially fatal kidney disease.

Meeuse was born in Sukabumi, a small town on the island of Java, Indonesia, and at age 11, he and his family moved to Bogor, Indonesia. The boy's interest in nature was fostered by the famous botanical gardens in this colonial outpost and he decided to become a biologist. He earned his degree in 1936 at the University of Leyden and his doctorate in 1943 at the University of Delft. He joined the University of Washington in 1952 and became a full professor of botany in 1960.

[New York Times, Aug. 9, 1999.]

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By Barbara A. Johnston