G. Ledyard Stebbins

G. Ledyard Stebbins bigraphy, stories - American botanist and geneticist

G. Ledyard Stebbins : biography

6 January 1906 – 19 January 2000

George Ledyard Stebbins, Jr. (January 6, 1906 – January 19, 2000) was an American botanist and geneticist who is widely regarded as one of the leading evolutionary biologists of the 20th century.Yoon C. K. January 21, 2000. Ledyard Stebbins, 94, Dies; Applied Evolution to Plants. New York Times, Section B, Page 9 Stebbins received his Ph.D. in botany from Harvard University in 1931. He went on to the University of California, Berkeley, where his work with E. B. Babcock on the genetic evolution of plant species, and his association with a group of evolutionary biologists known as the Bay Area Biosystematists, led him to develop a comprehensive synthesis of plant evolution incorporating genetics.

His most important publication was Variation and Evolution in Plants, which combined genetics and Darwin’s theory of natural selection to describe plant speciation. It is regarded as one of the main publications which formed the core of the modern evolutionary synthesis and still provides the conceptual framework for research in plant evolutionary biology; according to Ernst Mayr, "Few later works dealing with the evolutionary systematics of plants have not been very deeply affected by Stebbins’ work."Mayr, Ernst. "Botany: Introduction" in The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology, Ernst Mayr and William Provine, editors. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998. p. 138. Regarding the synthesis: "More than anything else, it was Stebbins’ book, Variation and Evolution in Plants (1950), that brought botany into the synthesis. It had the same impact in botany as Dobzhansky’s book in population genetics, integrating the widely scattered literature of plant evolution and providing abundant suggestions for further research." He also researched and wrote widely on the role of hybridization and polyploidy in speciation and plant evolution; his work in this area has had a lasting influence on research in the field.

From 1950, Stebbins was instrumental in the establishment of the Department of Genetics at the University of California, Davis, and was active in numerous organizations involved in the promotion of evolution, and of science in general. He was elected to the National Academy of Science, was awarded the National Medal of Science, and was involved in the development of evolution-based science programs for California high schools, as well as the conservation of rare plants in that state.


Stebbins made an enormous contribution to scientific thought and botany by developing an intellectual framework for studying plant evolution including modern concepts of plant species and plant speciation. His contributions to the literature of plant evolutionary biology, in addition to his seven books, include more than 280 journal articles and book chapters, a compilation of which were published in 2004—The Scientific Papers of G. Ledyard Stebbins (1929–2000) (ISBN 3-906166-15-5). Betty Smocovitis, a historian of science who is preparing a book-length biography on Stebbins, described Stebbins’s scientific contribution as follows: In science as in everything, small-scale synthesizers usually get credit from all constituent parties, but truly great synthesizers can fall between the cracks in the cycle of scientific credit. Ledyard Stebbins was in the latter category; neither fish nor fowl, he frequently failed to receive credit for work in some areas, usually at the hands of narrower colleagues. Few, however, have challenged his contributions to plant evolutionary biology, nor questioned his ability to synthesize disparate literature into a coherent framework. His ability to read quickly, recognize novel insights, digest new material, and then integrate the knowledge were the hallmarks of his scientific work style. He was a masterful synthesizer and master of the review essay or synthetic thought piece.

In 1980, the University of California, Davis, named a parcel of land near Lake Berryessa, California, the Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve in recognition of his contributions to conservation and evolutionary science. The reserve is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System. The UC Davis Herbarium maintains a G. Ledyard Stebbins student grant program, established in celebration of his 90th birthday.