Economic botanist and taxonomist Dan Austin, PhD, died January 20, 2015, the day after suffering a major stroke.
Dr. Austin, long-serving book review editor for Economic Botany, is a name well known to many botanists and to most members of the Society for Economic Botany (SEB), where he served on its council from 1993 to 1996.
Dan hosted SEB’s 44th Annual Meeting at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, where he had relocated after “retiring” in 2001. He remained active after leaving academia, publishing 11 papers in Economic Botany in addition to his book review duties. Dan also published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology; Ethnobotany Research and Applications; and, frequently, “The People and Plant Interactions Series” of The Palmetto, the journal of the Florida Native Plant Society.
As an undergraduate at Murray State College (now Murray State University) he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1966. His interests shifted from wildlife biology to botany after attending a seminar by Walter Lewis, PhD, a biology professor at Washington University and an esteemed botanist and ethnobotanist (as well as 1990 SEB president and 2006 SEB Distinguished Economic Botanist). Dan, who had developed an interest in the Lamiaceae family, spoke with Professor Lewis. An invitation to pursue his doctoral studies with Prof. Lewis ensued, and Dan joined his labs at Washington University and the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. At Prof. Lewis’ suggestion, Dan switched his focus to Convolvulaceae, and it remained his primary research interest throughout his career.
After completing his doctoral work in 1970, Dr. Austin and his wife Sandra moved to Boca Raton, Florida, to accept an assistant professor position at the newly formed Florida Atlantic University (FAU). FAU’s being on the edge of the tropics was ideal for Dan, with tropical plants growing in his backyard. He revitalized FAU’s incipient herbarium, which eventually grew to 30,000 specimens, before its demise after he retired (the Florida Tropical Garden subsequently acquired the specimens with the exception of plants from Convolvulaceae, which went to Arizona).
In addition to building the plant collection, Dan also built a graduate program and developed popular undergraduate courses, including Ecology of Southern Florida and Plant Taxonomy. He directed 22 master’s thesis projects on a variety of topics. Eight of his students earned doctoral degrees at other institutions.
Dan retired in 2001 and moved to Tucson to begin a new phase of his career. His Arizona productivity was not a post-retirement surge but a reflection of his consistent and prolific scholarship.
Dan has left a remarkable 308 publications, in addition to book reviews (126) and technical reports. The publications include 158 journal articles in 58 journals. More than one-third of his articles appeared in three journals: Economic Botany (22), Florida Scientist (18), and Taxon (16). That distribution reflects his three primary research foci: Convolvulaceae (especially Ipomoea) systematics, the vegetation and flora of southern Florida, and economic botany. His interest in morning glory taxonomy naturally led to the other two emphases. Dan once told me that Convolvulaceae was the perfect family to study; it was largely tropical, and its taxonomy had not been confounded by hobbyists and horticulturalists, as had been done in Cactaceae and Orchidaceae. Moreover, the family contained one very important economic species — Ipomoea batatas, the sweet potato. The latter species justified research on the family from the perspective of funding agencies. Twenty-six of his more than 150 publications on Convolvulaceae dealt with I. batatas or related species, as did four of his six papers, which have been cited more than 25 times. His taxonomic work established the foundation for understanding the domestication of sweet potato.
Dan’s second academic interest was the vegetation and flora of southern Florida. He wrote 114 journal articles, popular articles, and other contributions on this topic. Thirty-seven of these concerned exotic and invasive species, a major threat to the state’s natural ecosystems. He was among the first to publicize the impact of alien flora, and this area of research produced his second most-cited paper. Most of Dan’s Florida publications (87) focused on native plants, including rare and endangered species. He wrote 27 articles for The Palmetto, the primary publication of the Florida Native Plant Society, with more than half regarding species with human uses.
His magnum opus was Florida Ethnobotany (CRC Press, 2004) — a 900-plus page book that detailed 500 Florida plant species and their uses from published data that he had compiled. The tome includes more than the typical descriptions of plant use; it is as much a linguistic treatment as an ethnobotanical resource. Not surprisingly, Dan paid special attention to taxonomy and describes the derivation of generic names and specific epithets, as well as relevant taxonomic history, for each species. He also included an extensive list of common names and their meanings from throughout each plant’s range. Florida Ethnobotany won the 2005 Mary W. Klinger Book Award from the SEB.
Another Austin contribution was the underused neologism “ethnoflora.” More inclusive than the botanical pharmacopeia, the ethnoflora represents the subset of a flora that is used by humans. Unlike its definition in the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Dan would not have limited the scope of the flora to “aboriginal” use.
Like his 22 Economic Botany publications, Dan’s interest in plant-people interactions spanned his entire career and resulted in journal articles, encyclopedia summaries, popular articles, and books — 95 in total. His 2010 Baboquivari Mountain Plants: Identification, Ecology, and Ethnobotany (University of Arizona Press) earned a second Klinger Award in 2011, making him the only author to be twice honored.
Many laud Dr. Austin’s efforts as book review editor for Economic Botany beginning in 1993. The book review editor’s work can be onerous. He edited well over 1,300 reviews and wrote 126, impishly reserving the books close to his interests for his own appraisal. Twenty-one years of access to the most important texts on the subject granted him a grasp of the ethnobotanical literature that few others have had. Most would agree that he set the standard for the quality and expediency of book reviews.
The final phase of the Austin career could be called the desert years. A sabbatical in Arizona initiated a deep fascination in desert plants. His relocation to Arizona in 2001 inspired him to launch new studies and begin publishing on Arizona flora, a new area of research that culminated a decade later with a floristic treatment of Convolvulaceae for a region of southwestern Arizona.
Dr. Daniel F. Austin made significant contributions to botanical science in several fields. Besides his floristic, Florida, and econobotany papers, he established 28 infrageneric names and 48 new species or new species combinations in Convolvulaceae. He was honored several times by the Florida Native Plant Society and was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London. Two Convolvulaceae species were named for him, Merremia austinii and Hildebrandtia austinii, as well as a new genus of Convolvulaceae — Daustinia.
Academic achievements and awards alone do not adequately convey Austin’s impact on botany. Dan introduced hundreds of undergraduates to the marvels of Florida plants, collaborated with botanical colleagues around the world, and served as the major advisor for more than 20 students.
I met Dan in 1978, at the suggestion of Iain Prance (1996 SEB president and 2002 Distinguished Economic Botanist), and a year later began graduate studies with him at FAU. I learned too late that the easiest way to pass an Austin taxonomy exam was not through study. One merely drove by the Austins’ home to learn what was flowering. The landscaping eventually assumed the form of a tropical jungle, through little effort or intent by Dan. He simply let nature take its course. Whatever seed landed in his yard was allowed the chance to germinate and establish.
During my tenure at FAU, Dan and I and other graduate students spent many delightful days slogging through the swamps of the Fakahatchee, trying to avoid the ubiquitous alligators and water moccasins and the much more dangerous human poachers. Those days were the most enjoyable part of my career.
—Bradley C. Bennett, PhDDepartment of Biological SciencesFlorida International UniversityMiami, Florida
The author thanks Sandy Austin, Jim Burch, Julie Jones, Dan Moerman, John Rashford, Jim Snyder, George Staples, Bryan Steinberg, Bruce Tatje, and Bob Voeks for their contributions or for sharing their memories of Dr. Austin, especially George Staples for his discussion and careful review of a draft of the manuscript. This HerbalGram tribute is edited and condensed from a lengthier article by Dr. Bennett for Economic Botany (Volume 69, Issue 1).
Walter Lewis Remembers Dan Austin: A Professor’s Tribute to His Student
The loss of such a fine person and esteemed plant systematist and ethnobotanist on January 20, 2015, was a great shock for all those who knew Daniel F. Austin. Thanks to Ken Robertson in nearby Illinois, who sent the news to the Missouri Botanical Garden (MoBot) where I happened to be; I received it while working on Rosa in the Lehman Herbarium. I was completely stunned. I remained seated for some time looking outside, just some yards away from the building where Dan conducted much of his thesis research on Convolvulaceae for his PhD program. Both he and Ken were among my first doctoral students, and those pleasant times very many years ago vibrated throughout my body.
I mention this because both Dan and Ken were exceptional students at Washington University in St. Louis, and Dan in particular wanted to study and collect morning glories (Ipomoea spp., Convolvulaceae) in Brazil and other areas of South America. The University provided the funds for their botanical field research, and although Ken’s thesis would be in the Rosaceae, I had hoped that they both would leave St. Louis and so learn and experience new floras together. I understood that their collecting of Convolvulaceae specimens in Brazil was successfully accomplished by traveling by motorcycle, and they brought back fine material for Dan’s thesis and the MoBot herbarium. (To note, both Dan and Ken received their PhDs in botany with high honors.) All those grand old memories were too much for me, and I dropped everything and went home before noon to quietly contemplate his unexpected passing.
After completing his degree, Dan left St. Louis for a faculty position at Florida Atlantic University and to work as a research associate with the Fairland Tropical Garden in Coral Gables. There he continued his research in the Convolvulaceae, reinforced by collections made in Africa and Asia, and discovered a new interest in American Ipomoea and the uses of morning glories for health. The latter triggered his joining the Society of Economic Botany where many of his numerous and valuable research papers would be published in the journal Economic Botany. Dan was a prolific and careful writer and investigator, and, eventually, he took over my time-consuming responsibilities as book review editor for the journal. Sometime after this, as an emeritus professor, Dan left Florida for the West where he, his wife Sandra, and her mother settled near Tucson. He then assumed affiliations in Tucson with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the University of Arizona’s Department of Plant Sciences, and the Drylands Institute.
During his time in Arizona he hosted an annual meeting of the Society of Economic Botany at the Desert Museum; many of us from the East found new beauty in the uniqueness of the desert vegetation while having a good time and reflecting with Dan. He was a grand and gracious host, and he taught us well about the desert in just a short time. The Arizona meeting was the last time I would be with Dan, although monthly I would read his reviews regarding new publications in Economic Botany with interest and pleasure. My sincere and deeply felt sympathy goes out to Sandra for her loss of a great man and botanist.
—Walter H. Lewis, PhD
Professor Emeritus Washington University in St. Louis
Senior Botanist, Missouri Botanical Garden