The Biking Botanist
Today is the birthday of the Harvard and Smithsonian botanist, taxonomist and plant collector Lyman Bradford Smith who was born on this day in 1904.
Although his mother homeschooled him, it was his mother's Aunt Cora that nurtured his love of horticulture. He went to college and pursued botany at Harvard, where he found another passion: wrestling. Smith continued wrestling into his 60's. When he started his Ph.D., he attempted to focus on grasses. But that work required the use of a microscope, and Smith didn't have good eyesight. It was the botanist Ivan Murray Johnston who encouraged Smith to choose Bromeliaceae because they didn't require so much microscope time.
When he married his wife in 1929, their honeymoon was a tour of European herbaria.
After his honeymoon, Smith worked at the Asa Gray herbarium at Harvard. All through the Depression, Smith rode his bike to and from the Gray; 14 miles round trip.
Smith began focusing on four Brazilian plant families Bromeliaceae, Begoniaceae, Velloziaceae, and Xyridaceae early in his career. Despite discouragement from older academics who felt the topic of North American Bromeliaceae was too broad for a new taxonomist, Smith proceeded anyway. His work ethic surpassed most of his peers. He was known for saying, "Press it, and I'll identify it." Smith was a publishing master. He wrote extensively on his signature genera. Much of what is known about bromeliads is thanks to Lyman Bradford Smith. It is his lasting legacy. Today, twenty-one bromeliads are named in Smith's honor.
1947 brought significant changes to the Smith family after an offer from the Smithsonian to be the curator of South American Plants. It was an offer that was too good to refuse - better pay, the chance to travel, and more stability. Yet, Lyman brought the same work ethic and habits to the Smithsonian - riding his bike to the Smithsonian Castle every day until his seventies.
When Lyman arrived at the Smithsonian, he hired Alice Tangerini to be an illustrator - it's a position she still holds.