Elected ForMemRS 1999
Ledyard Stebbins will be remembered by countless biologists, and more particularly by botanists working in the period immediately after World War II for the remarkable book Variation and evolution in plants (11) *, published in 1950. In its preface Stebbins wrote:
The present book is intended as a progress report on the synthetic approach to evolution as it applies to the plant kingdom. … It does not intend to offer any new hypotheses, except on certain limited phases of plant evolution. … No attempt has been made to give a final answer to any of the major problems confronting evolutionists, but the information and ideas are presented here in the hope that they will help to open the way towards a deeper understanding of evolutionary problems and more fruitful research in the direction of their solution.
In this synthetic approach Ledyard Stebbins can best be compared with Charles Darwin, and the impact of the book was similar, although of course the basic theory of evolution had by then been well established by the fusion of Darwinism and Mendelism. But the material presented in Variation and evolution in plants was so detailed, and made such sense, that botanists suddenly had to realize that plants really did evolve, and that they did this in all sorts of exciting ways, many hardly found in animals and certainly little understood by most evolutionists who, for the most part, were animal oriented.
But all this makes no reference to his many other attributes that made him one of the foremost botanists of the twentieth century, attributes that this memoir will attempt to cover.