Obituary: Professor F. C. Steward
Monday 18 October 1993
F. C. STEWARD will rank as one of the outstanding plant physiologists of this century. His impact has been profound, in that he not only had a holistic view of plant physiology, but he also, with characteristic prescience, perceived its relationship to plant growth and development, and the regeneration of plants from cultured cells.
Born in Pimlico, London, in 1904, but brought up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, Steward was academically nurtured at Heckmondwike Grammar School and at Leeds University; having obtained a First Class honours degree in Chemistry at the age of 20, he was persuaded by Professor JH Priestley, a highly unorthodox physiological botanist, to undertake research with him in the Botany Department. Following his PhD on salt accumulation in plants, Steward was appointed to the staff of the department. He then held Rockefeller Fellowships at Cornell and at Berkeley, where he continued his researches in salt accumulation, later to be extended in further studies again at Leeds.
After his appointment in 1934 as Reader in Botany at Birkbeck College, London, where he was sometime Acting Head of Department, Steward extended his research interests to the relationship of respiratory energy to protein synthesis; the late Professor HE Street was his first PhD student.
During the Second World War he contributed significantly to the war effort as Director of Aircraft Equipment, using a statistical approach to ensure adequate supplies of aircraft spare parts and overall operational efficiency. After the war it was probably a unique combination of such administrative capability, combined with his research flair and his inherent tenacity, that enabled him, on his acceptance of the Chair of Botany at the University of Rochester, New York, to begin a comprehensive programme on nitrogen metabolism, growth factors and plant morphogenesis. This research programme was later developed extensively at Cornell University, where he was appointed Professor of Biological Sciences in 1950, and remained until his retirement in 1973.
Initially, he and his associates, including many from overseas, pioneered investigations on the nitrogen metabolism of plants applying the then recently introduced paper chromatographic procedure to separate and identify non-protein amino acids.
It was during this time at Cornell that Steward's researches left an indelible mark on plant physiology providing the key basic understanding of plant growth and development, and plant regeneration from cultured cells. These pivotal studies have provided an essential underpinning for the application of genetic engineering to plant biotechnology.
Ever fascinated by the unfolding processes of growth and development, Steward set out to study the behaviour of mature cells, isolated from carrot roots, when cultured in sterile nutrient culture media, using specially designed flasks and the rotating 'Steward' wheel. He unequivocally demonstrated that plant cells are totipotent, carrying the genetic information to enable them to develop into complete plants, often by embryogenesis, if given the right chemical stimuli in the correct order - thus vindicating an earlier prophecy that this would be so.
His election to Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1957 and in 1956 to Fellowship of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences was a signal recognition of his research achievements, as was the Merit Award of the Botanical Society of America in 1961 and the Stephen Hales Award of the American Society of Plant Physiologists in 1964. But it was also his remarkable ability to communicate the excitement of his subject, both verbally, in his unique accent, and in writing, that made his contributions the more remarkable. The breadth of his comprehension is exemplified by his monumental multi-volume treatise Plant Physiology (1959-72) which he edited and to which he contributed, and by his popular short book on Plants at Work (1964) in which he lucidly discoursed on the nature and importance of plants, and which has encouraged many to embark on research in plant physiology.
He travelled and lectured extensively throughout the world; he was awarded a DSc degree by London University, an Honorary DSc by the University of Delhi, was Sir CV Raman Lecturer at the University of Madras, and a Croonian Lecturer at the Royal Society. His Laboratory for Cell Physiology, Growth and Development at Cornell, established to recognise his contributions, was a Mecca for young plant physiologists, many now leading researchers in their own right, eager to participate in his research programmes. He was its Director from 1963 to 1973.
Throughout his career 'FC' was fortunate to enlist the loyal support of several secretaries, technicians and academic staff over many years; he also had the devoted support of his wife of 64 years, Anne, until his death peacefully at home.
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