Obituary: Joseph Ewan

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The Independent Culture
NO ACADEMIC subject is truly the creation of a single person, but, if George Sarton can be said, more or less, to have created the flourishing modern discipline of History of Science in the United States and elsewhere, it is hardly too much to add (as a footnote) that Joseph Ewan, who died last week at the age of 90, established the history of natural history in America as a subject of scholarship. He was himself, without question, the leading historian of American botany.

Joseph Ewan was born in Philadelphia in 1909 but grew up in Los Angeles. The surrounding countryside was then almost unspoilt and Ewan's weekend forays were the making of an excellent field naturalist. His earliest scientific paper, published while he was still in his teens, was on the California Black Rail.

He attended the University of California, graduating from Berkeley in 1934. He continued on, as a research assistant (1933-37) to Willis Linn Jepson, the formidable last representative of what has rightly been called "the six-shooting botanical Wild West". Jepson was the greatest authority on California botany of his time, a solitary and enigmatic figure who continued to intrigue Ewan to the end of his life. His bibliographical tastes, historical interests and taxonomic prowess were a lasting inspiration. The less pleasant side of Jepson's temperament (which recalls A.E. Housman's) never seemed to trouble his assistant. Although not entirely an innocent, Ewan had an innate kindliness and charity that enabled him to forgive without forgetting.

It was an indication of Jepson's character, and not as a sign of any lingering Ewanian animosity, that he enjoyed telling the tale of how, when he and his fellow student Nesta Dunn went off to Nevada one weekend in 1934 to marry, Jepson (a lifelong bachelor) immediately reduced his wages, insisting that no man could serve two muses. He could not have been more wrong, for Joseph Ewan had in fact acquired a means of doubling his forces. Nesta Ewan (who survives him) collaborated on many of his later publications. Her husband liked to remind his readers of a favourite phrase of an earlier California botanist with an indispensable wife, John Gill Lemmon, who gratefully added the phrase "et uxor" to many of his publications.

Ewan went on to teach at the University of Colorado from 1937 to 1944, working on the taxonomy of Delphinium and a biographical dictionary, Rocky Mountain Naturalists (1950, revised and enlarged in 1981). Although widely recognised as an essential work of reference in North America, it has not achieved the international reputation it deserves. It is in fact a work on the order of the equally neglected Dictionary of Mauritius Biography or Longden's Northamptonshire and Rutland Clergy, recording even the most fleeting of passages, the transient invaders and not just the natives.

After war work in the Andes, exploring for wild sources of quinine, and a brief posting at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Ewan joined the faculty of Tulane University in New Orleans in 1947. He remained there until his retirement in 1977, producing a steady flow of articles and books on the history of American natural history, chiefly on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Keith Crotz's bibliography Ewaniana (1989) lists 358 publications between 1928 and 1989; the final count now exceeds 400. No less significant is the dispersal of these articles in no fewer than 84 journals. Ewan liked to boast that he had been still more diffuse in the scattering of his scholarly remains than Jepson's notorious predecessor Edward Lee Greene.

No record has yet been compiled of his place in the footnotes of others, but these must run into the thousands. Without Ewan's assistance, as J.C. Beaglehole noted in his two-volume edition of The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks (1962), "the proper presentation of the journal would have been out of the question". Hundreds of humbler scholars might have echoed these words.

Ewan's own works too are rich in the presence of others. Chief among his later books is the fundamental study, John Banister and his Natural History of Virginia 1678-1692 (1970), a publication by Ewan et uxor, based on manuscripts in the library of the Botany Department at Oxford. He also edited the most beautiful book ever published by the American Philosophical Society, William Bartram: Botanical and Zoological Drawings, 1756-1788 (1968), a substantial folio handsomely printed by Meriden Gravure and the Stinehour Press, reproducing the drawings in the Fothergill Album in the Natural History Museum in London. He also edited, with valuable historical introductions, a series of reprints of early American floras for Hafner (1967-72).

If he had not been a naturalist, Ewan used to say, he would have inevitably become a bookseller. No account of his life could possibly be complete without some mention of the books. There is of course, no more bookish science than taxonomy, with its reliance on priority of publication, and the bibliographical reconstruction of priorities. Ewan was an early member of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History in London (now the Society for the History of Natural History) and received its Founder's Medal in 1977.

He could not afford to buy costly colour-plate books, but everything else came his way, not merely the usual scientific titles, but a broad range of obscure travel books, in which the earliest observations of a flora or fauna might casually appear. Maggs Bros was naturally his favourite London bookshop, perhaps because Frank Maggs allowed him to rummage for travel books in rooms not ordinarily opened to the public.

The Ewan library was above all a working collection, astonishingly complete and immaculately ordered. And the 5,600 titles were only the beginning; what was unique was the wealth of more ephemeral material - the huge collection of offprints, newspaper clippings, photocopies, correspondence, documents and manuscript notes contained in his research files. They cover an extraordinary range of subjects, for all was grist. Ewan never neglected what he called the "supernumerary, fringe, extralimital, outrigger items". "Tidbits", too, was a favourite word.

Ewan sold his collections in 1986 to the Missouri Botanical Garden, but he and Nesta accompanied them to St Louis, where the two were soon installed (and as busy as ever) as sole occupants of the handsome old brick herbarium building. There they continued to labour on two massive books that remain in manuscript.

The biography of Benjamin Smith Barton, which is fundamentally a history of American natural history during the Jeffersonian era, a time when Barton's Philadelphia was the national centre for science, was completed years ago but it is too large and unprofitable an undertaking for any publisher in the 1990s - there is some hope that the Missouri Botanical Garden will eventually publish it. Even more useful will be his bio-bibliography of naturalist-travellers entitled Amazon and Andes. This still requires some amendment and polishing: it is essentially a Rocky Mountain Naturalists for South America.

Joseph Ewan was one of the last survivors of a vanishing age in the history of science, the antiquarian era before "professionalisation", in which specialists on slime moulds wrote about the history of the study of slime moulds. Ewan's place as a historian is with Charles Singer, F.J. Cole and Clifford Dobell. There is no School of Ewan, for he was too ancillary, too undoctrinaire, too uncareerist, too uninstitutional - in life, as in his writings, he preferred people to organisations. There are instead innumerable Friends of Joe, for he was the most inspiring and lovable of men.

It has been said that a musicologist's most essential piece of information is the Belsize Park Gardens telephone number of Albi Rosenthal. Joseph Ewan's address (for it was better to write) held a similar place among natural historians. It was almost impossible to write about American natural history at any time during the last half-century without consulting Joseph Ewan, who would draw on his vast memory and still vaster files, immediately returning a letter or even a dossier, brimming with enthusiasm, encouragement and "facts".

The Missouri Botanical Garden has published (and placed on-line) a Guide to the Ewan Papers (1997) which lists some 10,000 names, including not only every naturalist on whom the Ewans had documentation, but all the many friends and strangers with whom they corresponded.

In person, he was delightful, with a slow, distinctive, almost caressing voice, and magnificent eyebrows, reminiscent of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker's, that shot up and down in silent sympathy or earnest counterpoint. He loved puns, plays on words and malaprops, characteristically taking no pains to correct the elderly black janitor at Tulane who invariably greeted him as "Professor Urine".

Joseph Ewan was above all a bird-bander on the grand scale, releasing his friends and disciples into the world, each securely tagged with his or her own precious unit of essential Ewanian data. They will return to nest for years to come, ensuring a posthumous incubation of scholarly footnotes and heartfelt acknowledgement.

Joseph Andorfer Ewan, naturalist and botanical historian, born Philadelphia 24 October 1909; married 1934 Nesta Dunn (three daughters); died Mandeville, Louisiana 5 December 1999.

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