Peter the great – Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis
This guy turns a sleepy azalea park into one of the best botanical gardens in the hemisphere, so now he thinks he can save the world too?
Liz Raven McQuinn vividly remembers summer vacations with her father back in the 1970s, before he became world renowned. “We’d be driving along, my parents in animated conversation,” she says, “and he’d spot some plant by the side of the road. We’d come screeching to a halt while he collected it, carefully numbering the specimen.” Then her father and the rest of the family would pile back in the car and carry on as if nothing had happened. “God knows what number he’s up to,” says Liz, now 38. “I seem to remember it was already in the twenty thousands when I was a teenager.” The number is about 30,000, but Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, is a bit too famous now to up the count much. Ruddy and white-haired at age 63, decked out in a pin-striped suit, he careens from board meetings to lobbying congressmen to making speeches at scientific conventions. He hasn’t really had the time to stop and collect plants. Or to cultivate them. His daughter doesn’t remember him ever planting a flower. He’s been too busy for that, too–busy planting ideas. Like this one: “All the critical elements of human life, from growing food to building shelter to curing disease, have their foundation in the study of plant life,” Raven says. Weaving that theme into his own life, he has transformed a little regional botanical garden buffed in the middle of the Midwest into one of the grandest botanical gardens in the world and an international center of plant research. Along the way, he has become the planet’s most passionate advocate of preserving biodiversity, driven by this fear: Earth will lose one-fourth of its species in the next 30 years. Most scientists work quietly in their labs, leaving public advocacy to others. Raven has reversed those priorities. “Peter would have been an extremely successful CEO of a large multinational corporation,” says Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson. “He has the traits: restlessness, drive, vision, goal-orientation, the inner need to make a difference.”
But the difference he wants to make is almost impossible. He wants to save the world of plants. Longtime friend Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, says, “No one is more responsible than Peter for the concern human beings have for other organisms on the planet.” Few if any of those who have worked with Raven rule out success, if only because they are in awe of his boundless energy His publications list, for example, outweighs many phone books. It includes 500 papers and 19 books, on topics ranging from the obscure “Pollination by Lemurs and Marsupials” to the more widely read The Biology of Plants, which has been a standard text for nearly 30 years. He’s been a National Science Foundation fellow, a Guggenheim fellow, a MacArthur Foundation fellow, home secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, a member of the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology and he’s currently chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration. “I wish I knew his secret so I could double–or triple or quadruple–my own productivity,” says Bruce Stein, director of scientific publications at The Nature Conservancy and a former Raven student.
“He’s here at 6 a.m., working straight through the evening,” says Jonathan Kleinbard, his deputy director at the Missouri Botanical Garden “This is his life. He’s busy all the time.” Raven thrives on the challenge of juggling numerous projects at the same time. “It’s clear from his dam-to-dark work hours that he has to keep his mind busy with simultaneous multiple tasks,” says Donald Stone, chairman of the botany department at Duke University. “The fluidity and quickness of his mind is amazing.”
RAVEN FLEDGED YOUNG. AN ONLY CHILD, HE WAS BORN IN Shanghai, where his father worked in a relative’s bank. Soon the family moved to San Francisco. At the age of six, he read a book about insects and began prowling his neighborhood for bugs. He collected rare beetles from beneath the overturned pots in a nearby plant nursery, grew caterpillars into butterflies. He collected plants, too, pressing them in telephone books. “I liked the puzzle of identifying them,” he recalls. At 8, he became one of the youngest student members of the California Academy of Sciences. At 12, he joined the Sierra Club and went on plant-collecting expeditions with friends in Golden Gate Park and the Sierras. “I think those Sierra Club outings … were really crucial in cementing his interests,” Liz McQuinn says. In Catholic school, he ran track and absorbed a classic Jesuit education that included Greek and Latin, and in the meantime he collected a number of rare and interesting plants including Clarkia franciscana, which had not been seen since about 1900. He began publishing scientific papers before he was out of high school.
Raven graduated from Berkeley in 1957 and earned his Ph.D. in plant biology at UCLA three years later. A National Science Foundation post-doctorate at The Natural History Museum, London, and Kew Gardens followed, and then a job teaching biology at Stanford where, botanist Robert Ornduff, an old friend from Berkeley, recalls, “Peter went through a hippie phase. Long hair, T-shirts, general grubbiness, and an in-your-face attitude toward the general public.” Ravens daughter Alice, 40, remembers accompanying her father on shopping expeditions to record stores, “then I would dance around the living room while he listened to his latest acquisition by Janis Joplin or Jefferson Airplane.” These days Raven and his third wife, Kate, listen to an eclectic mix of reggae, classical, and world music.
At Stanford, Ravens office was next to Paul Ehrlich’s. Over coffee, they discussed Ravens childhood fascination with butterflies and, more importantly, the interdependent relationship of butterflies and plants. That led to Raven and Ehrlich devising the groundbreaking idea of coevolution: separate species evolving together, side by side, each influencing the other’s development. The paper they published became one of the most talked-about of the 1960s, influencing not only other scientists, but also popular culture when it was taken up by Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog. Raven and Ehrlich were synergistic. “Peter and I have coauthored three papers,”Ehrlich says, “and they are each of our most-cited papers.”
Raven was 35 when he arrived at the Missouri Botanical Garden. The oldest botanical garden in the United States, it was founded in 1859 by wealthy Englishman Henry Shaw on a modest 10-acre site he set aside on his vast estate. One hundred and twelve years later, the Garden, which controlled the 79 remaining acres of the Shaw estate, still occupied only 10 acres. “It was like an art museum with all the pictures hanging in one room,” says Raven.
That, of course, has all changed, and Raven is always pleased to hop in a stretched-out version of a golf cart and prove it to a visitor. Racing along well-trimmed pathways, he parts a sea of grinning, waving docents, stops at plots of roses, daylilies, irises, hostas, scented plants, and succulents, then, with the glee of someone who has completely remodeled his house, points out the new glass-walled entrance building; the expanded parking lot; the gift shop, restaurant, auditorium, classrooms, and art gallery; and the sculptures by Frank Stella, Jacques Lipchitz, and Henry Moore. He circles a glinting lake at the center of a 14 1/2-acre Japanese garden, the largest in this country Passing the high-crowned bridges, raked sandscapes, and a pond of enormous multicolored koi, he points to the biggest and whitest, joking: “Moby Carp.”
In nearly three decades here, Raven has grown the Garden staff from 85 to 350, putting it on par with The New York Botanical Garden and London’s Kew Gardens. The number of volunteers has swelled from 300 to 1,200, membership from fewer than 2,000 to more than 35,000, the budget from $650,000 to $22 million. Raven has found space for the struggling Center for Plant Conservation, a consortium of botanical gardens dedicated to preserving and reintroducing plants native to the United States. He has also built a $20 million research building that houses a 122,000-volume library, a graduate student program, and some of the herbarium’s 5 million specimens.
More importantly, Missouri Botanical Garden scientists now identify about 200 new plant species every year. Raven has created one of the world’s most active centers of field botany with 55 Ph.D. staff scientists, many living overseas where they conduct field research and collaborate with native scientists of South America, Mesoamerica, sub-Saharan Africa, Madagascar, and China. (Ever the man to point out inequities, Raven likes to note that Third World countries have 80 percent of the Earth’s population but not even 20 percent of its scientists.) Collected plants arrive here daily, pressed and wrapped in newspapers written in the languages of their home countries.
“We’re collecting more plants, have more people overseas, more training programs, and more interactivity with other institutions than any other garden,” says Robert Magill, the Garden’s research director. “And we get a lot of grant money from other institutions feeding our research programs, all due to Peter’s personal contacts and vision.” The Garden’s online botanical database, Tropicos, attracts tens of thousands of hits a month.
Raven built this empire by networking with anyone and everyone of importance in the world of plants. “He’s great at connecting the dots and knowing what the dots are doing,” says Brian Boom, vice president for science at The New York Botanical Garden. “He always e-mails me, solicits my opinion, passes on opportunities. He’s selfless, generous with information, and inclusive with people. Because he’s so prolific, people will do things for him.”
Raven has a talent for taking a big idea and making it bigger. That’s what he did with the Flora of China. Scientists in China were preparing an illustrated publication with a complete description of their country’s 30,000 plants. In 1979, they suggested to Raven and his colleagues that an English version would be a good way to update the work and bring it to an international audience. Raven signed on as coeditor, lined up taxonomists, raised money, and arranged for the Missouri Botanical Garden to copublish the work with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Seven of a projected 50 volumes of the English version have been released since 1987. “What I’m really good at is I don’t let things grind to a halt,” he says with a mischievous smile.
Sometimes people, including his deputy director at the Garden, are taken aback by Ravens relentless drive. “When I came here, I was told by someone he was a raving maniac, and it’s true,” says Jonathan Kleinbard. “He’s a raving maniac about the things he cares about.”
One thing he cares about is bio-prospecting. “We’re trying to find and capitalize on useful plants,” says Jim Miller, head of the Garden’s applied research department. More than one-fourth of the world’s prescription medicines contain a plant-derived ingredient, Miller says, but probably no more than 2 or 3 percent of the world’s flora have been tested against any disease. In the last 10 years, the Gardens plant explorers have turned over more than 40,000 plants to various organizations, including the National Cancer Institute, for testing as possible anti-disease agents. One, the rosy periwinkle from Madagascar, is being used to combat childhood leukemia and Hodgkin’s disease. Another drug, paclitaxel, from the bark of the Pacific yew, has been approved for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer. “It’s unlikely the forest is full of perfect medicines,” Miller says. “But it may be full of imperfect medicines so complex we never would have hit on them in the lab.”
Conserving and cultivating such complexity in the natural world is more than a scientific challenge to Raven. In each of his calm, witty–but alarming– speeches, there comes a moment when the audience can sense that the scientist is receding into the background and the evangelist is taking over. “As species disappear,” he says carefully and forcefully, ever reminding the audience that one of every four plants could disappear forever within three decades, “the world will get less and less interesting, less and less beautiful, less and less prosperous.” And he is masterful at linking the struggle to save plants with the struggle to improve the lives of people who interact with those plants. “In very poor regions, women and children just gather wood and haul water and can’t ever enter society,” he says, his usually bright blue eyes clouding a little.
Still, he defies categorization as a bleeding-heart environmentalist. For example, he argues that the controversial practice of genetically engineering crops “can help take stress off natural ecosystems and improve growth rates so we can avoid cutting rain forests and improve sustainability.” He describes the practice as a faster, more precise version of age-old human efforts at hybridization and selective breeding of plants and animals. “It’s a long way from the wolf to the Chihuahua,” he says.
On the other hand, he derides the complacency of those who believe science and technology can solve every environmental problem and free human beings from the obligation to practice good husbandry of the planet. “They’re nuts,” he says.
BIODIVERSITY, THE RAGGED, CUMBERSOME WORD RAVEN loves, falls weightlessly on the average American ear. Yet the concept is not difficult. “Biodiversity is the sum total of all the variety of life at different levels, including ecosystems, species, and genes,” says Ravens friend Edward O. Wilson. It is everything that keeps us alive and, perhaps as important, keeps us amazed.
The challenge of making people care about biodiversity is big, but not as big as Raven’s plans. He is working to include every single plant known to people on a comprehensive online database, “so people all over the world can query it and use it. With that, we could do a lot we can’t imagine now.” And he’s trying to move environmental concerns higher on the national and international agenda. As president of the Sixteenth International Botanical Congress held in St. Louis in August, he announced a coordinated, worldwide conservation scheme to preserve all plant species in habitats, seed banks, and herbariums.
“Twenty years ago, biodiversity was off the radar screen,” says Wilson. “Now it’s on the edge of the screen because of a few biologists such as Peter.”
One day, after Raven had given a statistic-packed speech at the World Agricultural Forum in St. Louis about the price everyone will pay for the loss of species and variety, a woman bustled up to him and gushed, “I always appreciate you so much! But you scare me to death!”
He smiled and kissed her cheek. Then he drew back, deadly serious, asking: And then do you take a cold shower and forget it? Or you do something about it?”
That’s always Ravens answer: Do something about it. “Negativity makes Peter sad,” says Jonathan Kleinbard. “But he believes in goodness, so he presses on.”
A multitude of aromas fills the herbarium of the Missouri Botanical Garden: The bay leaf scent of the Lauraceae, the distinctive sweetish odor of Quararibea, the sharp oily smell of eucalyptus, and what the curator, Jim Solomon, calls “the unwashed locker room smell” of Valerianaceae. Together, the dried plants stacked in cubbyholes smell of clean hay. The 5-million-specimen herbarium shelters at least 14 of the plants that Joseph Banks collected during Captain James Cook’s first world voyage from 1768 to 1771, as well as a small fern Charles Darwin pressed during his voyage on HMS Beagle in the 1830s. Every year, an average of 120,000 new specimens are added to the collection. Collecting is easy enough when the plant is small, such as a violet: Just stick it on a sheet of acid-free rag paper and add field notes. But how do you collect a 90-foot palm? “You can’t save a tree,” Solomon says. Instead, the collector samples significant parts of the palm–the base of a petiole where the frond attaches to the trunk, a section of the leaf segments, bits of roots and bark. Breaking down a big palm can take hours. “It’s important to have precise field notes so someone can reconstruct how it looks in nature,” Solomon says. The coconuts are kept in a box.
PRESSING THE PLANTS: The herbarium loans and exchanges thousands of specimens with other botanical institutions each year (left). Dried plants are mounted onto archival sheets with glue (bottom right). An archivist examines freshly mounted specimens that will be stored at 62 degrees Fahrenheit with low humidity.
Bio-prospecting is an adventurous form of applied research that takes scientists into the hot deserts, chilly mountains, and bug-bitten jungles of the world in search of plants that could be a source of medicines, pesticides, fungicides, and other useful chemical compounds. The first antimalaria drug, quinine, came from the bark of the Cinchona calisaya tree. In its natural state, quinine had neurological side effects. “But with tinkering, they produced an effective drug,” says Jim Miller, head of the Missouri Botanical Garden applied research department. Plants are complex, and different parts-roots, leaves, stems, flowers, fruit-may have different effects. For study purposes, a scientist will find a plant in the field, divide it up, and send it off to the lab for extraction. Lab workers grind up the sample and soak it in solvent, then evaporate the solvent and test what’s left. They use different solvents to get different testable residues. “You may get four or five extracts from each tree and test them against a list of diseases or tumors. And get 99 percent negative results,” Miller says. “Then you might turn them over to another lab that’s set up to test for other diseases.” A vine, Ancistrocladus korupensis, found in Cameroon in 1987, yielded three different chemical compounds new to science, Miller says. Screens of different parts of the vine yielded two antimalarial compounds and one anti-HIV compound. Researchers are testing whether they can be refined into useful drugs.
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