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)

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: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible