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John J. Wurdack: 1921-1998.
John J. Wurdack, 77, Curator Emeritus of Botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, my longtime friend, died of cancer May 13 at Doctors' Community Hospital in Lanham, Maryland. He had lived in Beltsville, Maryland, with one of the best rock gardens I ever visited. My own Green Farmacy Garden now sports progeny from some of his Eomecon, Epimedium, and a great Passiflora incarnata, flowering now, as I write this obituary.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, John remained there through college, receiving a B.S. in 1942 from the University of Pittsburgh. During his military service in World War II, he was temporarily stationed at Parnamirim Air Field, Natal, Brazil, beginning his long love affair with the Neotropical flora.

Attaining a degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana, he joined the staff of The New York Botanical Garden, working his way to Curator; as he worked on he joined several rigorous scientific expeditions to remote mountains of South America. He traveled thousands of miles by river and on foot and became the first scientist to explore or to collect botanical specimens on a number of isolated peaks in the Venezuela Guayana.

In 1960, he was appointed Associate Curator in the Smithsonian Institution and started working with the plant collections in the U.S. National Herbarium. That's where I met him and experienced his enthusiasm, for botany, plant identification, and life in general. Always the best of hosts, he invited my wife, Peggy, and me out to Beltsville for dinner with him and his wife, Marie Solt. That dinner began a quadrangle of friendship, interrupted only by Marie's untimely death in 1978, also to cancer. Since Made, an accomplished Ph.D., had collaborated with a bibliographic study with me at the USDA, I played El Condor Pasa at her memorial services in Beltsville. She and John had both been intrigued with the Andean flora and haunted "my" Machu Picchu.

During his tenure, he described more than 700 species of flowering plants and published more than 130 papers, including book-length treatments of the Melastome family for the floras of Ecuador, Venezuela, and the Guianas. More than 140 species were named after him. I was pleased to play a song at the roast for John's formal retirement in 1991. In 1997, a special volume of scientific papers dedicated to Dr. Wurdack was published in Caracas, Venezuela. This Festschrift honoring John's 75th birthday (and to which I contributed a chapter on Peru's nina-caspi, a ceremonial burn-bush) is still available from Dr. Laurence C. Dorr, Department of Botany, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

John is survived by two sons, Douglas, of Silver Spring, Maryland, and Kenneth, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and two sisters, Mary Darr, of Baltimore, Maryland, and Rose Moore, of Woodbridge, Virginia.

On July 9, 1998, two decades after playing E1 Condor Pasa for Marie, I played it again in memorial services for John at the Baird Museum of the Smithsonian, filled with his botanical friends, seeking closure, celebrating the life, camaraderie, and contributions of a great botanist active, engaging, and friendly to the end.

Article copyright American Botanical Council.


By James A. Duke