Obituary: Professor F. C. Steward

Frederick Campion Steward, plant physiologist and botanist: born London 16 June 1904; Demonstrator, Leeds University 1926-27; Rockefeller Fellow, Cornell University 1927; Assistant Lecturer, Leeds University 1929-33; Fellow, Rockefeller Foundation 1933- 34; Reader in Botany, Birkbeck College, London 1934-40; Director Aircraft Equipment (Ministry of Aircraft Production) 1940-45; Professor of Botany and Departmental Chairman, University of Rochester, New York 1946-50; Charles A. Alexander Professor of Biological Sciences and Director of Laboratory for Cell Physiology and Growth, Cornell University 1950-73; FRS 1957; married 1929 Anne Temple Gordon (one son); died Tuscaloosa, Alabama 13 September 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power