Obituary: Raymond Fosberg

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The Independent Online
F. Raymond Fosberg, botanist: born Spokane, Washington State 20 May 1908; assistant botanist, Department of Agriculture, Washington DC 1937-41; served US Foreign Economic Administration 1941-45; US Geological Survey 1951-65; Special Adviser in Tropical Botany, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution 1966- 78 (botanist emeritus); married twice (four daughters); died Falls Church, Virginia 25 September 1993.

RAYMOND FOSBERG was one of the first people to campaign for environmental conservation and was probably the most travelled botanist in history.

Conservation is now an integral part of the ideology of most of the political movements of the world. It is concerned not only with endangered species but also with whole ecosystems, the natural vegetation, associated animals, soil, natural water resources and the atmosphere. Its relevance is world-wide; the preservation of a stable environment in Antarctica, say, is as important to inhabitants of the northern hemisphere as it is to those of the southern hemisphere.

What is now taken for granted as an integral part of our social philosophy was not always so; awareness of our environment by the majority rather than the minority has grown only in the last 50 years. Ray Fosberg understood the importance of conservation at a time when most people had scarcely heard of the term, let alone appreciated its global significance. He was amongst the first people to start raising public and official awareness of the value of understanding and respect for the environment.

Fosberg was born near Spokane, Washington state, in 1908. As a child he was interested in islands, an interest which remained central to his work for the rest of his life. He graduated from Pomona College, California, which he had entered in 1926, and in 1935, after studying under the notable Pacific plant specialist Harold St John, received a masters degree from the University of Hawaii. In 1937 he gained a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, after which he started his first job with the United States government as an assistant botanist in the Department of Agriculture. He spent the rest of his life based in Washington.

During the Second World War Fosberg travelled in South America as part of the US Foreign Economic Administration. At that time there were difficulties in obtaining quinine to combat malaria amongst American troops, as the Asian sources of the drug were cut off by the hostilities. Fosberg was the senior botanist on the Colombian Cinchona Mission, which was responsible for locating sources of wild Cinchona, the bark of which is a source of quinine and other antimalarial alkaloids. His trip to Colombia was successful and helped to revive the local quinine industry, which had been inactive for 75 years. It was also an effective demonstration of the practical use of ecology.

After the war Fosberg spent six months preparing an economic survey of Micronesia, the islands of the Marianas, Caroline and Marshall Archipelagos in the western Pacific, travelling around the islands studying and collecting plants. In 1951 he was hired by the Geological Survey in its Military Geology Programme to work on the Pacific Vegetation Project with Dr Marie-Helene Sachet, and he remained with the Survey until 1965. He then joined the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, first as special adviser in tropical botany and later, in 1970, as Curator of Botany.

Fosberg became adviser to the Pacific Science Board, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council, and one of his proposals to the Board was for a general survey of all the coral atolls of the Pacific region. The Office of Naval Research backed his proposal and a series of five expeditions was sent out. The information gathered on these expeditions was published in a new journal founded by Fosberg and Sachet, the Atoll Research Bulletin. This journal, first published on 10 September 1951, has now reached no 346 and deals with all aspects of island biology, geology, geography and ecology throughout the world. His work in the western Pacific, in the wake of the Second World War, had a profound influence on his attitude to the need for careful documentation and management of the sensitive ecosystems of islands.

In a career which spanned 63 years Fosberg's achievements are substantial. He made over 56,000 scientific collections of plants. He published more than 600 books and articles, including editing eight volumes of the revised Flora of Ceylon, a manual which covers all the native plants of Sri Lanka and is now being completed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He has published or shared publication of 463 new plant-names and 40 plants are named after him. His advice was sought by hundreds of organisations and individuals with ecological interests, including Rachel Carson, James Michener and Marlon Brando. He received four honorary degrees and numerous awards for his contributions to tropical botany and conservation. He was an officer of several organisations, serving as president (1966-72) of the International Society for Tropical Ecology. He helped organise and participated in numerous scientific meetings, including eight Pacific Science Congresses.

Fosberg combined active research with extensive travelling not only for field work but also for academic studies in other institutions, lecturing and committee work. His outstanding knowledge of tropical ecology and his organisation of meetings and symposiums made him a considerable force in world botany.

Biologists are driven by a curiosity about the natural world and an enthusiasm for recording it in detail. Ray Fosberg was an outstanding example of this - he was tireless in his pursuit of information; when in the field he was continuously jotting notes in a small pocket book on all he saw. He was a robust man who led an exciting and adventurous life, dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge but always with the objective of applying it usefully. He will be the inspiration to future generations of island biogeographers and the unification of island research through the Atoll Research Bulletin will be his lasting memorial.

Fosberg's personal objective was to have a global view of the natural world and this he certainly achieved, but his fulfilment in life was the privilege of contributing to human knowledge.