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William F. Whitman Jr. - 1914–2007

William F. Whitman Jr., famous for the collection and cultivation of rare tropical fruit, died May 30, 2007, at his home in Bal Harbour, Florida, at age 92.1 He died in his sleep, and he had recently suffered a heart attack.

Whitman prided himself on growing plants in the United States that were more suited to be grown elsewhere. For instance, he was the only person able to make a mangosteen tree (Garcinia mangostana, Clusiaceae), a plant that is normally grown in Southeast Asia, flourish to the extent of bearing fruit outdoors in the United States—specifically, in his garden in Florida. (Mangosteen products have become highly popular as beverages and dietary supplements in the past few years.)

His longtime friend of 40 years, Richard J. Campbell, PhD, senior curator of tropical fruit at the Center of Tropical Plant Conservation, said that Whitman preferred growing rare fruit in Florida because it was his home (e-mail, June 22, 2007). Dr. Campbell also told the New York Times, “When people said, ‘You can’t grow that in Florida,’ he took that as a challenge.”1

Whitman searched more vigorously for plants that challenged him than those that could be easily grown: “Once a fruit was successfully grown by a number of people, he lost interest,” Dr. Campbell said (e-mail, June 22, 2007). “He would not stop until he knew what fruit was over the next horizon.”

Stephen S. Brady, MD, his friend and physician, told the New York Times, “He’d hear about a fruit tree and pursue it like a pit bull to the ends of the earth.”1

A little known fact about Whitman is that he was also persistent in his fishing: “He was never too tired to fish,” said Dr. Campbell, “even at 88, in the blinding rain at 10:00 p.m. on the Amazon in a dugout canoe” (e-mail, June 22, 2007).

William F. Whitman was born in Chicago in 1914.1 Aside from bringing rare fruit to Florida, he was also one of the first, along with his brothers, to introduce spear-fishing to his home state.2 He was added to the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 1998, while still surfing in his 80s. He and his brother Dudley also provided underwater film footage for the documentary The Sea Around Us, which earned an Academy Award in 1952, using a special underwater camera they invented. It was after a sailing trip to Tahiti that he became fascinated by rare fruit.1

Whitman co-founded the Rare Fruit Council International (RFCI) in 1955 and served as president until 1960.2 The RFCI introduces species of rare fruits all over the world and has helped establish the tropical fruit industry in the United States.

Whitman himself introduced 80 different varieties of tropical fruits to the United States and wrote 80 publications on tropical fruit culture.

He is survived by his wife Angela; three children Christopher, Eric, and Pamela; his brothers Dudley and Stanley; and seven grandchildren.

—Kelly E. Saxton
  1. Karp D. Bill Whitman, 92; scoured the earth for rare fruit. New York Times. June 4, 2007; B6.

  2. Karp D, Ramos N, and Whitman Family. Tribute to Bill Whitman, RFCI cofounder. Fruit Gardener. July & August 2007;39(4):6.