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Charles Bixler Heiser: 1920–2010
Charles Bixler Heiser, PhD, the esteemed ethnobotanist best known for his work on the domestication of sunflowers (Helianthus annuus, Asteraceae), died in June of last year from complications after a stroke he suffered months earlier. He was 89.

Dr. Heiser was born in the small, southern Indiana town of Cynthiana in 1920. Except for his undergraduate years at Washington University in St. Louis and his doctoral work at the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Heiser spent the majority of his life at Indiana University (IU) researching and studying one of his greatest life passions—plants. He joined the IU faculty in 1947 as an assistant professor of botany, just months after receiving his PhD from Berkeley. By the time Dr. Heiser retired in 1986, he was considered one of the preeminent authorities on the sunflower genus.

“He helped build that botany department,” said Gregory Anderson, PhD, a former student of Dr. Heiser’s who is now a distinguished professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut (oral communication, August 10, 2011). “He had a reputation that was big enough that he could have moved anywhere he wanted to. I think he liked it there. It was a good place to raise a family and a good place to work.”

Growing up in rural Indiana, Dr. Heiser was exposed to the beauty and complexity of nature from a young age. Dr. Anderson believes part of Dr. Heiser’s passion for plants came from his early experiences on his grandparent’s farm. “That farm played very heavily in his love for agriculture, love for land, and his appreciation for people working land and interacting with plants and animals,” he said.

Although Dr. Heiser was known for his work in ethnobotany, he entered college with the intent of becoming a journalist. After meeting his wife, Dorothy Gaebler, in an advanced botany course and developing close relationships with professors Edgar Anderson and Robert Woodson from the Missouri Botanical Gardens, Dr. Heiser graduated with degrees in both Botany and English.

Loren Rieseberg, PhD, a botany professor at the University of British Columbia and a former colleague, attributed Dr. Heiser’s ability to explain complex scientific issues to his background in English (oral communication, August 2, 2011). “I think that we all viewed him as both an incredible scientist as well of one of the best communicators in the business,” said Dr. Reiseberg.

Dr. Anderson expressed a similar sentiment. “His 6 books are a testament to a commitment to writing things that scientists could appreciate and enjoy but were also approachable by educated lay public,” he said. “That was a model for all of us.”

Dr. Heiser wrote several popular science books including Of Plants and People, which examines the history of plant domestication (1985, University of Oklahoma Press); Nightshades, the Paradoxical Plants (1969, W. H. Freeman); and a very popular textbook on economic botany, Seed to Civilization: The Story of Man’s Food (1973, W. H. Freeman). He also wrote Weeds in My Garden: Observations on Some Misunderstood Plants, which was published by Timber Press in 2009, just a year before his death. Dr. Heiser was the author of a well-received book on gourds and another on sunflowers as well.

Throughout his career, Dr. Heiser served as the president of various organizations including the American Society of Plant Taxonomy and the Society for Economic Botany, and was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1987. He also received awards from the New York Botanical Garden, the Botanical Society of America, and the Indiana Academy of Science. Even with myriad awards, Dr. Heiser is most recognized for his work on sunflowers.

“Some of his major discoveries were in some of his early work on sunflowers, showing, for example, that sunflower was domesticated in eastern North America, which was probably his most important discovery,” said Dr. Rieseberg. “It started this whole school of American anthropology looking at the transition from hunter-gatherers to farming communities in eastern North America.”

Dr. Heiser played a vital role in clarifying the importance and evolution of hybridization in flowering plants as well. During his time at IU, Dr. Heiser took a number of sabbaticals to study tropical plants in Ecuador—a place he grew to love. On one such trip, his plane was hijacked while en route to Quito. Cynthia Roberts, one of Dr. Heiser’s 2 daughters, accompanied him on the ill-fated trip.

“I remember somebody leading [a man] down the aisle with a gun pointed in his back,” said Roberts (oral communication, August 11, 2011). The hijackers diverted the plane to Cuba, where they disembarked. Nobody was hurt in the process and the passengers were flown back to Miami. The Heisers eventually made it to their final destination in Ecuador.

Decades later, Dr. Rieseberg still relies on his former colleague’s research. “Almost every paper I write, I cite the background taxonomy and biosystematics work that Charley did,” he said. “Pretty much everything I do has built on the discoveries and work that Charley did 50 to 60 years earlier.”

Roberts still experiences the lasting effects of her father’s reputation as well. “Periodically, I run into people around my age who tell me that they had a class from my dad and it was their all-time favorite class,” she said. “People liked him as a teacher.”

Dr. Anderson believes that part of Dr. Heiser’s success as a teacher and advisor stemmed from his unabashed passion for his work. “He was very demanding about work and high-quality work, but very enthusiastic, very boyishly enthusiastic, about work with plants,” said Dr. Anderson. “That enthusiasm carried over to the rest of us as well.”

Although Dr. Heiser has passed, his association with the bright, yellow petals of Helianthus lives on. “Sunflower means father to us,” said Roberts.

Tyler Smith