Howard Scott Gentry

Agave Knowledge

Today is the birthday of Howard Scott Gentry who was born on this day in 1903.

A 1982 newspaper article shared a great story about Howard, saying:

"This elder statesman of the botanical world [is] a first-class charmer when you get .... to his subject;... his love for the wilds of Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico; [and] about the years he spent as an agricultural explorer for the USDA, and about how he gradually came to know more about agaves "than any other human being."

Concerning the hectic pace of his agave research after his retirement from the USDA in 1971, Howard said:

"I don't like to start things and not finish them."

Several times a year, Howard would plunge into the rugged interior of Mexico perched atop a mule, just as he'd done during his first collecting trips nearly half a century earlier.

[Howard graduated college with a degree in] vertebrate biology from the University of California at Berkeley [and he] concocted the notion of becoming a freelance biologist.

To pay for his first field trip into Mexico, Howard sent 300 letters around the country - to scientific institutions, naturalists, really anybody he could think of - soliciting collection orders.

"I came up with $3,000 worth of orders. For anything and everything, for an embryo of a white-tailed deer, which I did collect, for birds' eggs, for ticks, for plant specimens. I really got fascinated with that southern Sonoran and Chihuahuan country.”

After this trip, Howard wrote "Rio Mayo Plants." He recalled:

"After that book came out, I became somewhat known as a botanist, which I wasn't. I was a zoologist doing exceptionally well writing as a botanist."

Howard completed a doctorate in botany at the University of Michigan, where the well-known botanist Harley Harris Bartlett taught.

In 1950, Howard became an agricultural explorer for the USDA. Based in Maryland, he traveled the world locating, researching and collecting plants for the government. [Howard was involved in a] spurt of postwar agave work when it was discovered that plants in the agave family and plants in the wild yam family contained compounds that seemed effective in treating arthritis.

Because of his far-flung collecting (he traveled in 24 foreign countries), Howard was constantly introducing new plants to the United States. It was high-profile work in the botanical community.

"I refused several times to become a desk man for USDA. 
It was a chance to cut out all the travel, but I told them, 
'No, not me. I want to work with plants, not people. People are problems."


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Howard Scott Gentry
Howard Scott Gentry

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