Botanist and plant taxonomist Billie Turner died at age 95 due to a lingering illness and complications from COVID-19 on May 27, 2020, in Round Rock, Texas. Turner specialized in the taxonomy of the sunflower family (Asteraceae) in Mexico and the southwestern United States, and, before the advent of DNA sequencing, he promoted biochemical systematics in the field of plant identification. Over his 60-year career, Turner authored and co-authored more than 700 works: a large number on plant taxonomic treatments, but also treatises on
Texas flora and secondary metabolite chemistry.
Turner was born in Yoakum, Texas, on February 25, 1925. Due to the Great Depression, his family frequently moved around the state during his early childhood. Eventually, they settled in Texas City, where Turner graduated as valedictorian of Central High School in 1943. Immediately after graduation, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. During his service in World War II, he was stationed in Italy during active combat and then in Germany during its occupation by the Allies. He earned a Purple Heart medal for an injury in action and eventually attained the rank of first lieutenant. After the war, he was stationed in El Paso, Texas.
During his time in El Paso, Turner used the GI Bill to attend college. Rather than wait for his discharge, he began attending class at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, 220 miles away from El Paso. According to his family, he would sneak out to attend classes during the week, then return on the weekend for muster. At Sul Ross, Turner initially planned to get a law degree. However, after he took an introductory botany class taught by the late Barton Warnock, PhD, an expert on plants of the Texas Trans-Pecos region, he switched his course of study and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1949. He continued his education, earning a master’s degree in biology from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas in 1950 and a PhD in botany from Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, in 1953. After his doctorate, Turner began working at the University of Texas at Austin (UT) as an instructor.
Turner spent his entire career at UT until his retirement in 2000. He gained notice with the publication of two works: Photographic Documentation of Vegetational Changes in Africa over a Third of a Century (with Homer L. Shantz, PhD; University of Arizona, College of Agriculture, 1958) and The Legumes of Texas (University of Texas Press, 1959). In 1961, he was promoted to full professorship. He was the first Sidney F. and Doris Blake Centennial Professor in Systematic Botany, which was endowed after Doris Blake’s death in 1978. He also served as chair of the Department of Botany from 1967 to 1974 and of UT’s Division of Biological Sciences from 1972 to 1973. At the time of his retirement, he had named more than 1,400 plant species, varieties, and hybrids. Plants have been named in his honor, including Lophospermum turneri (Plantaginaceae).
Turner’s most visible accomplishment was perhaps his stewardship of the herbarium (then called “TEX”) at UT. Upon his assumption of the directorship in 1958, the herbarium housed approximately 200,000 specimens. Turner increased this to 300,000 with the assistance of faculty member Marshall C. Johnston and their students. By the time he stepped down as director in 1998, and after he negotiated the acquisition of the private collection of botanist Cyrus L. Lundell, PhD, the herbarium held more than one million specimens and the collection was renamed the Plant Resources Center. Turner also negotiated the move of the herbarium’s facilities to the iconic UT Tower in 1984, an accomplishment of which he was particularly proud. Upon his retirement, the herbarium was renamed in his honor: Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center.
True to the interests of Turner and Lundell, and fitting for the university’s location, the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center contains specimens from Texas, Mexico, and northern Central America. More than 200,000 sheets contain specimens from the Asteraceae family, including many that are underrepresented in other academic and private collections. Some of the oldest specimens date back to the university’s founding in 1883. The collection ranks fifth among US university herbaria and 12th across the nation in size.
Beryl Simpson, PhD, who was hired by UT as a professor in 1978, is the current director of the Plant Resources Center and the C. L. Lundell Professor of Systematic Botany at UT. “Billie was one of the great crew of outlandish botanists of his time,” she wrote (email to M. Blumenthal, July 14, 2020). “His influence on countless students, both undergraduate and graduate, was immeasurable. He leaves a great legacy of younger botanists, publications, plant collections, and the Billie L. Turner Plant Resources Center at The University of Texas.”
Among his many achievements, Turner served as secretary of the Botanical Society of America from 1959 to 1964 and as its vice president in 1970; president of the Southwestern Association of Naturalists in 1967; was the recipient of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists’ leading research and teaching accolade, the Asa Gray Award, in 1991; and the Donovan Stewart Correll Memorial Award from the Native Plant Society of Texas in 2003 for his work on the Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Texas, vols. 1 and 2 (with Holly Nichols, Geoffrey Denny, and Oded Doron; Botanical Research Institute of Texas [BRIT], 2003); and the Native Plant Society of Texas’ Charles Leonard Weddle Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in the field of Texas native plants in 2010.
His notable publications include Biochemical Systematics (with Ralph E. Alston, PhD; Prentice-Hall, 1963); Plant Chemosystematics (with Jeffrey Barry Harborne, PhD; Academic Press, 1984); and the culmination of his lifetime of knowledge: The Comps of Mexico: A Systematic Account of the Family Asteraceae (27 volumes; Texensis Publishing, 1996-2017). Unfortunately, Turner’s declining health halted the production of further volumes.
Director of BRIT Press and Library Barney Lipscomb, who edited some of Turner’s works, wrote: “Billie Turner was a strong supporter of me from my early years at SMU (1975–1987) and later with BRIT. Billie also supported many botanists, publications, projects, and organizations devoted to Texas plants. Thank you, Billie.” (email to M. Blumenthal, July 14, 2020)
Billie Turner was a great influence on his family, many of whom are well-respected academics in similar fields. He is survived by his sons Billie (Carol) L. Turner II, Matt Warnock Turner, Robert Lee Turner, and Roy Parker Turner; granddaughter Victoria Kelly Turner; great-granddaughter Siena Leigh Turner-Rudy; and many nieces and nephews.