Scott Zona was one of Carlquist's doctoral students and a close friend till Carlquist passed away last December. Scott portrays Carlquist as not just as a brilliant scientist but also a dedicated mentor and imperfect human being, like all of us.
Published on 25th April 2022
I first met Sherwin Carlquist after a long, much-delayed flight from Newark to Los Angeles in early Spring of 1985. The flight arrived in LA in the wee hours, and I had had only a few hours’ sleep before I was scheduled to meet him at his office at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (now the California Botanic Garden). I remember the jacaranda trees in bloom along the streets of Claremont, and the lemony scent of Corymbia citriodora around the Claremont colleges. I remember the snow on the San Gabriel Mountains behind RSABG. I remember the bright sunshine and the smell of the coastal sage scrub. Oddly enough, the memories of that first meeting with Sherwin are gone, probably because he made me feel so at ease, like we had known each other for years.
Shortly after our first meeting, I began my PhD work with Sherwin and thrived under his guidance. Sherwin took a chance on me when I was fleeing a PhD program whose faculty thought I was “not serious about botany”. As he used to say, he preferred to bet on students rather than against them. He genuinely loved mentoring students. It was as fundamental to his nature as breathing. I recently learned that, even in his retirement, he tutored plant anatomy to a younger botanist whose graduate education had omitted that subject. Sherwin believed that a student’s education in botany should be well rounded and should include both classical and contemporary tools.
Sherwin Carlquist was a giant in the fields of plant anatomy and island biology, and his many publications and accomplishments in those fields will be recounted elsewhere. He was an excellent storyteller, a characteristic that made him an engaging lecturer in botany. His undergraduate classes at Pomona College were always full, and his encyclopedic knowledge combined with first-hand anecdotes made Sherwin a very popular professor. Pomona College’s high standards for student admission meant that there were many bright, motivated undergrad students who were inspired by his lectures and came to him with research projects that they completed under his supervision. Several of these student-led projects resulted in jointly published articles in peer-reviewed journals.
I recently learned that, even in his retirement, he tutored plant anatomy to a younger botanist whose graduate education had omitted that subject. Sherwin believed that a student’s education in botany should be well rounded and should include both classical and contemporary tools.
Outside of botany, he pursued his other interests with the same passion that sustained his scientific research. He had an astonishing collection of vinyl records of what he called “20th century serious music” (and what the recording industry calls modern classical music). He loved black-and-white, film photography and never used anything other than his beloved, large-format, Hasselblad cameras. He had a darkroom set up in his home in which he processed and printed his photographs. Sherwin self-published several volumes of his photographs of male nudes in wilderness settings. I once referred to him in print as the “Ansel Adams of male nude photography,” a metaphor that pleased him to no end.
His ability to enjoy photography and music declined in his final years, as he suffered loss of mobility caused by arthritis in his knees and some partial hearing loss. Neither disability slowed down his scientific productivity. He continued doing research with the slides and microscopes he had at his home, and he continued processing and printing photomicrographs for his papers. He provided the final edits to his last publication, ‘Distinctive wood anatomy of early-diverging Asteraceae: Barnadesioideae’, shortly before he died.
Sherwin could be shy and a bit socially awkward, which some people mistook for aloofness or hauteur. He rarely went to meetings or conferences. Nevertheless, he was always available to students and always willing to help. When news of his death was posted on Twitter, several people responded with anecdotes of how they, as young researchers or students, tentatively wrote to him with questions. They recounted how to their utter surprise, he had responded with warmth and generosity. That was quintessential Sherwin: He was less impressed by titles and status than by insightful questions and a willingness to learn.
Sherwin was not very good at admitting when he was wrong – he very rarely was – and never learned how to concede an argument. I witnessed it only once, when I argued that the department’s language tool requirement was unfairly applied to international students. (I maintained that, if I could count Spanish as one of the two required language tools [excluding English], Latin American students should be allowed to do the same.) We argued in his lab. The following day, by way of apology and concession, Sherwin came to my office (the first and only time) “just to say hello”. Shortly thereafter, the policy was changed.
When news of his death was posted on Twitter, several people responded with anecdotes of how they, as young researchers or students, tentatively wrote to him with questions. They recounted, how to their utter surprise, he had responded with warmth and generosity. That was quintessential Sherwin: He was less impressed by titles and status than by insightful questions and a willingness to learn.
For all his expertise, his luminescent career, and his professional accolades, Sherwin was a complex, witty, imperfect, generous, brilliant human being. I already miss our correspondence, which continued regularly after I left RSABG many decades ago, first as letters, then as emails, and lasted until the end. My final message from him, about two weeks before he died, mentioned the passing of two botanical contemporaries, William L. (Bill) Stern and Billie L. Turner, and closed with, “As for this kid, I’m doing fine”.
That is how I’ll remember Sherwin. He’s doing fine.
(Sherwin Calrquist was a foreign member of the Linnean Society and a recipient of the Linnean Medal in 2002. He passed away on December 1, 2021, at the age of 91. Read Calrquist’s ‘Darwin on Island Plants’ in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.)
Dr Scott Zona, botanist.