Albert E. Radford-A Tribute

Albert E. Radford-A Tribute

Burk, William R

Botany lost a pioneer in plant systematics and a staunch advocate of plant conservation with the death of Albert E. Radford on April 12, 2006, at age 88. He died at the home of his daughter and son-in-law, Dr. and Mrs. Daniel Vinson, in Columbia, Missouri, where he had lived since August 2003.

Born in Augusta, Georgia, on January 25, 1918, Albert Ernest Radford was the eldest of Albert Furman and Eloise (Moseley) Radford’s nine children. After completing his early schooling, he enrolled at the Junior College of Augusta and then matriculated at Furman University as a junior. He initially chose mathematics as his major but was subsequently captivated by botanical studies through the inspiring instruction of Professor Sumner Albert Ives. Radford received the B.S. degree in 1939, graduating magna cum laude. Renowned botanist William Chambers Coker recruited Radford to pursue graduate studies in botany at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), where he would devote the remainder of his life, first as a student and then as a professor. Henry Roland Totten was Radford’s major advisor, and Coker became Radford’s close mentor. His studies were interrupted in 1941 when he joined the United States Army, in which he served with the 51st Engineer Combat Battalion during World War II. Attaining the rank of Captain, Radford took great pride and honor in his service that concluded with the end of the war in 1945. He and his wife Laurie later wrote a book based on his military experiences that included fighting in the Battle of the Bulge as well as several campaigns in Europe and North Africa (Radford and Radford 2002). Radford resumed graduate studies at UNC in 1946, when he also became an instructor in botany. He earned the Ph.D. in botany in 1948. His groundbreaking dissertation, The Vascular Flora of the Olivine Deposits of North Carolina and Georgia (Radford 1948a), was subsequently published (Radford 1948b). This research initiated Radford’s future interest and endeavors in the relationship of soil, minerals, rocks, and topography in the distribution of plants. In the Department of Botany (now Biology), Radford advanced in the academic ranks: instructor (1946-49), assistant professor (1949-53), associate professor (1953-58), professor (1958-87), acting chairman (1964-65), and professor emeritus (1987-2006). He concurrently served as the curator of the UNC Herbarium (1946-60) and then as its director (1960-87).

Radford’s career at UNC spanned four decades during which time his primary foci were teaching, the administration of the herbarium, and research and publication. Inspiring his students in the pursuit of scientific inquiry, he emphasized that they should use factual knowledge (no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time) to develop a bigger picture and understand its importance. Concerning Radford’s rapport with students, a former student noted, “He saw the potential in an individual.” His instruction included courses on general botany, taxonomy of flowering plants, local flora, principles of taxonomy, plant ecology, and ecosystematics.

A signature feature of most of his courses was the field trips. Field excursions ranged from a single day to longer trips, such as one that Radford and 12 graduate students took that covered an area between Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida. His trips separated the squeamish from the hearty. Students would observe classmates getting stuck in bogs, stepping over poisonous snakes, and even having a near-miss with a shark. Radford told his students “if they were scared of snakes, mosquitoes or water, forget it” (Hurd 1987). He wrote several books to assist graduates in their training and research (Radford et al. 1972, Radford et al. 1974, Radford 1986) and was the major advisor for 42 Masters and 20 Ph.D. students in botany.

Under the direction of Radford, the UNC Herbarium grew from over 100,000 specimens to nearly 500,000. His collection numbers ended at over 46,000, many of which were collected in substantial duplicates. He built up an exchange program, using duplicate specimens to increase the size and diversity of the collection. During his administration, the herbarium maintained its standing as the largest in the southeastern states; and nationally it attained the distinction of being among the twenty largest in the country.

Many of Radford’s contributions to science are botanical landmarks. A Flora Project of the Carolinas was effectively begun at UNC in 1956 that included Radford (the principal investigator), C. Ritchie Bell, and Harry Ahles as primary plant collectors, each of whom was assigned to collect in designated counties. The aims of the undertaking were to collect and authenticate species of plants and their distribution and to produce a manual. Based on over 200,000 specimens, they first issued a Guide to the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas, with Distribution in the Southeastern States (Radford et al. 1964) in 1964 to be used to test their keys. This book was followed by an Atlas of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (Radford et al. 1965) in 1965. Three years later, the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas (Radford et al. 1968) debuted with Radford as editor-in-chief. The book became a classic, locally known as the “green book” because of its green binding. At the time of its publication, it was acclaimed as a state-ofthe-art floristic manual because of its format, which included technical descriptions, keys, line drawings, and county distribution maps, all in a reasonably-priced single volume. As stated by the late John Freeman, it “has become the standard reference for plant identification throughout the Southeast” (Freeman 1994). The manual has had a lasting impact on botany and continues to be in high demand 38 years after its publication, as attested by 14 printings totaling nearly 50,000 copies.

Following the publication of the Manual, Radford led the Southeastern Flora Project from 1968 to 1990 (now ceased). He served on the editorial Board that oversaw the publication of the Vascular Flora of the Southeastern United States. Its impressive goal was to produce a projected multi-volume manual that would include every native plant species in the southeastern United States. Written by contributors, two volumes appeared, one on Asteraceae, another on Fabaceae (Vascular Flora of the Southeastern United States 1980-90).

Radford became very concerned with the decline of the flora to which he had devoted his professional life. In the 1970s and 1980s, his energies turned increasingly to natural area inventory, rare species conservation, and methods of documenting the biodiversity significance of sites and setting conservation priorities. In late 1974, he participated in a symposium with other herbarium directors to develop one of the first state lists of imperiled plants (Hardin et al. 1977). This work defined, in part, the agenda for the newly-founded North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. His thinking evolved well beyond the level of individual species, however, and he began to seek ways to integrate plant systematics and plant ecology as a means of assessing biological diversity at all levels. The interest in plant communities and the abiotic conditions that determine them, which he had developed in his doctoral dissertation, inspired him to seek means to integrate biotic and abiotic factors into the assessment of natural areas through an analytical method he developed and called “ecosystematics.” This interest was manifested in his authoring a series of methodologies for describing the vegetation of natural areas and assessing their uniqueness, at first informally published at UNC for class use (Radford 1976,1977,1978), and culminating in Natural Heritage: Classification, Inventory, and Information, published by UNC Press (Radford et al. 1981). In his ecosystematics class, he implemented the use of these methods, documenting the significance of hundreds of sites across the Carolinas. He also authored (along with D.L. Martin) a report on the most significant natural areas of the Piedmont (from Delaware to Alabama) entitled Potential Ecological Natural Landmarks, Piedmont Region (Radford and Martin 1975).

These inventories of natural areas became influential in directing land-conserving state agencies and non-profit conservation organizations to important unprotected conservation sites in the region. In addition, Radford’s personal knowledge about the importance of conserving various natural areas was particularly significant prior to the maturation of the Network of Natural Heritage Programs in the 1980s and 1990s. The conservation of many natural areas stands as a lasting legacy to Radford. Tom Massengale, former Director of the North Carolina Chapter of The Nature Conservancy states that Radford was “influential in establishing the first state TNC program in the South” and for years was an “indispensable resource in setting the conservation agenda” in the state. Examples of sites that are now protected natural areas in part owing to Radford’s efforts include the Green Swamp (Brunswick County, NC), Nags Head Woods (Dare County, NC), Bluff Mountain (Ashe County, NC), Big Yellow Mountain (Avery County, NC), Buck Creek Serpentine Barren Special Botanical Area (Clay County, NC), Sparta Bog (Allegheny County, NC), Stevens Creek Heritage Preserve (McCormick and Edgefield Counties, SC), Crosby Oxypolis Heritage Preserve (Colleton County, SC), Ditch Pond Heritage Preserve (Aiken and Barnwell Counties, SC), Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve (Lancaster County, SC), Tillman Sand Ridge Heritage Preserve (Jasper County, SC), Victoria Bluff Heritage Preserve (Beaufort County, SC), Savannah River Bluffs Heritage Preserve (Aiken County, SC), Rock Hill Blackjacks Heritage Preserve (York County, SC), Heggies Rock (Columbia County, GA), Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve (DeKaIb County, GA), Panther Creek Special Botanical Area (Stephens County, GA), Cedar Creek Special Botanical Area (Stephens County, GA), and Big Hammock Natural Area (Tatnall County, GA).

Another lasting benefit of Radford’s devotion to natural area conservation in the late 1970s and 1980s was the training he provided to students who went on to influential conservation careers. Radford’s ecosystematics course became legendary and was sought after by conservation-oriented students at UNC and other universities. Scores of students inspired and educated by Radford in this and other courses went on to applied conservation science careers in federal and state government, the network of Natural Heritage Programs, and The Nature Conservancy, where they continue to positively influence biodiversity conservation in the southeastern United States and beyond.

Radford’s service and contributions did not go unrecognized. For excellence in teaching, he received the Tanner award from UNC in 1956 and a Meritorious Teaching Award from the Association of Southeastern Biologists in 1978. The Highlands Biological Station conferred a Citation of Merit on Radford in 1977, and The Nature Conservancy bestowed the prestigious Oak Leaf Award on him in 1978. In receiving the 1991 Elizabeth Ann Bartholomew Award from the Southern Appalachian Botanical Society, Radford was honored for his public and professional service in botany. Several plants commemorate him: Parthenium radfordii Mears, Carex radfordii Gaddy, Dicerandra radfordii Huck, and Lysimachia √óradfordii Ahles. Chick Gaddy reflects on the naming of Carex radfordii:

“In the seventies, I had asked Dr. Radford about unexplored areas in the southern Appalachians. He told me about the Brevard Belt, its complex geologic structure, and its undocumented flora. Years later when I found a new species of Carex endemic to the Brevard Belt of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, I named it Carex radfordii in honor of the man who told me where to look.”

A Hypericum endemic to the Brushy Mountains of North Carolina will soon be named in honor of both Albert E. Radford and his wife Laurie Stewart Radford, as the first collectors of the species and in recognition of their contributions to the University of North Carolina Herbarium and floristic botany, as well as plant conservation in the Southeastern United States (J. Allison, in prep.).

He held memberships in a number of learned associations, including the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society (secretary, vice-president, president), the North Carolina Academy of Science (president), the Southern Appalachian Botanical Club (now Society) (vice-president, president), the Association of Southeastern Biologists (executive committee), the Botanical Society of America, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, the International Association of Plant Taxonomists, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was elected to the UNC chapter of Sigma Xi and actively served the Highlands Biological Station, UNC’s field station in the western section of North Carolina, as trustee, vice-president, and president.

There is a saying of unknown origin that notes: “Behind every great man there is a great woman.” This was true for Radford. Joining the herbarium as an assistant in 1939, he worked with curator Laurie Stewart. Their association flourished, and they married on October 10, 1941. Through the ensuing years, they shared botanical interests. Mrs. Radford accompanied him on field trips (particularly during summers when their children were out of school and after their family had grown up) and collaborated as an editor and contributor in publishing. They also shared a passion for growing a large vegetable garden each year at their home in Chapel Hill. When the Radfords were planning to move into Carolina Meadows, a retirement community in Chapel Hill, they donated their house and land to the North Carolina Botanical Garden Foundation to launch efforts toward a new building to house the University of North Carolina Herbarium (NCU) and Research Center at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. This gift reflects their strong commitment to keeping the Herbarium at the forefront of research and provides a lasting legacy of their contributions to botany.

Radford’s steel-trap memory, skill at observation and love of field work were pivotal in his research endeavors. He was untiring, intrepid, and focused-whether in pursuit of plants for botanical surveys or on class field trips. Venomous snakes, alligators, snares of brambles, poison ivy, and inclement weather would not deter him. Former students fondly recall images of the barrel-chested Radford, khaki-clad from head to foot and pith-helmeted, pushing through dense vegetation with a speed surprising for his size, a string of students straggling behind and trying to keep up with this man many years their elder.

Albert E. Radford’s pioneering accomplishments and contributions earned him respect. He was instrumental in developing an internationally acclaimed program in plant systematics at UNC and promoting the cause of natural area conservation in North Carolina and other southeastern states. Radford’s scholarly ideas will continue to serve botany and society through his publications and the people he taught and advised. He will be remembered as a dedicated teacher, a consummate plant collector, a respected floristician, a master “maker of lists,” and an untiring proponent of conservation. When visiting the UNC Herbarium a few years ago, Radford himself said it best as he gestured to the cabinets lining the walls: “This is my life!”

Albert Radford is survived by his daughter Linda R. Vinson, and his sons, David E. Radford of Oak Park, Illinois, and John S. Radford of Redwood City, California. He is predeceased by his wife Laurie Stewart Radford, his brothers Robert Radford and George Radford, and his sisters Rosa Rister and Margaret Hensley.

We acknowledge the assistance of Betsy Appleton, Jeffery Beam, Carol Ann McCormick, Brian Nalley, Bob Peet, Peter White, and Susan Whitfield (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Lance Richardson (photographer of portrait of Radford), Jim Allison, Jon Ambrose, and John Bozeman (currently or formerly of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources), Pat Holmgren (New York Botanical Garden), John Nelson (University of South Carolina), Patrick McMillan (Clemson University), Steve Leonard and Tom Massengale (currently or formerly of The Nature Conservancy), Chick Gaddy (terra incognita), and Linda Vinson.-WILLIAM R. BURK, JOHN N. COUCH BIOLOGY LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA, CB#3280 COKER HALL, CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA 27599-3280 and ALAN S. WEAKLEY, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH CAROLINA HERBARIUM (NCU), NORTH CAROLINA BOTANICAL GARDEN, UNIVERSITYOF NORTH CAROLINA, CB#3280 COKER HALL, CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA 27599-3280. email address:;


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RADFORD, A.E. 1976. Vegetation-Habitats-Floras: natural areas in the southeastern United States: field data and information. Published by University of North Carolina Student Stores, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

RADFORD, A.E. 1977. A natural area and diversity classification system. A standardized scheme for basic inventory of species, community, and habitat diversity. Published by University of North Carolina Student Stores, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

RADFORD, A.E. 1978. Natural heritage classification and information systems. Part I. Ecological diversity classification and inventory. Published by University of North Carolina Student Stores, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

RADFORD, A.E. 1986. Fundamentals of plant systematics. With contributions by Gloria Caddell, et al. Harper and Row, New York, New York.

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RADFORD, A.E. and L.S. RADFORD (JOHN S. RADFORD, ed.) 2002. Unbroken line: The 51st Engineer Combat Battalion. With contributions by Brigadier General Harvey R. Fraser, et al. Cross Mountain Publishing, Woodside, California.

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RADFORD, A.E., H.E. AHLES, and C.R. BELL. 1964. Guide to the vascular flora of the Carolinas, with distribution in the southeastern states. The Book Exchange, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

RADFORD, A.E., H.E. AHLES, and C.R. BELL. 1965. Atlas of the vascular flora of the Carolinas. North Carolina Agric. Exp. Sta. Techn. Bull. 165. Published by the North Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station, Raleigh, North Carolina.

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RADFORD, A.E., W.C. DICKJSON, and C.R. BELL. 1972. Vascular plant systematics. With contributions by Ben W. Smith [and others]. Illustrations by Marion Seiler and Laurie S. Radford. Published by the University of North Carolina Student Stores, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

RADFORD, A.E., W.C. DICKISON, J.R. MASSEY, and C.R. BELL. 1974. Vascular plant systematics. With contributions by Ben W. Smith [and others]. Illustrations (except Appendix) by Marion S. Seiler. Harper and Row, New York, New York.

VASCULAR FLORA OF THE SOUTHEASTERN UNITED STATES. 1980-1990. Vascular flora of the southeastern United States. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. [Volume 1. Asteraceae, by Arthur Cronquist. Volume 3. Part 2. Leguminosae (Fabaceae), by Duane Isely.]


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