Peter Wyse Jackson named George Engelmann Professor of Botany

Storied professorship is the second-oldest at the university

As he placed the medallion about Wyse Jackson’s neck, Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton told him the medallion was “a symbol of your appointment — a symbol of the excellence that you bring to our community.”

Peter Wyse Jackson, PhD, was installed as the George Engelmann Professor of Botany in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis in a ceremony held in Holmes Lounge, Ridgley Hall, Nov. 21.

Wyse Jackson became president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in September 2010 and, by tradition, the president of the garden also is awarded the professorship at WUSTL.

Wyse Jackson is one of the world’s foremost botanists and plant conservationists. He has played an influential role in reshaping the international botanic garden community, helping to make plant conservation its top priority. Without plants, as he often reminds his audiences, there is no life.

“We’re very proud to have Dr. Wyse Jackson joining us,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton said. “This professorship is one of great significance because it symbolizes the importance of the partnership we enjoy with the Missouri Botanical Garden, one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world. We’re very fortunate to have a person of Wyse Jackson’s luminosity — of his international visibility — taking the presidency of the garden and becoming part of the university community.”

Kathryn G. Miller, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences, also welcomed Wyse Jackson and said the garden, together with its botanical library and herbarium collection, has been an extremely rich resource for local high school students, and WUSTL students and faculty.

Edward S. Macias, PhD, provost, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs and the Barbara and David Thomas Distinguished Professor in Arts & Sciences, introduced Wyse Jackson.

Wyse Jackson was educated at Trinity College Dublin, where he earned a bachelor’s, a master’s and a doctoral degree, all in botany. His doctoral research concerned the taxonomy of the Irish Cruciferae, which he explained “are a group of seashore weeds of northern latitudes.”

In 1980, Wyse Jackson was appointed curator of the Trinity College Botanic Garden, a small but distinguished institution established in 1687. “There,” he said, “I began my horticultural apprenticeship. The staff would ask me what to do about the Pyracantha that was dying and I would say, ‘Give me a moment’ and I would look up Pyrachantha to see what it is.”

In 1987, he moved to Kew Gardens in London to help set up an international organization for botanic gardens that developed into Botanic Gardens Conservation International. In 1994, he was appointed secretary general of this organization, remaining in this post until 2005, when he returned to Dublin as director of the National Botanic Gardens of Ireland.

Wyse Jackson has helped to establish botanical, conservation and horticultural organizations in more than 30 countries.

In the many years he’s worked with botanic gardens, his concern has increasingly been to develop their role in plant conservation. “This interest grew,” he said, “out of the period I spent on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean in 1985. In Mauritius, there are something like 250 endangered plant species and about 60 of those were known from fewer than 10 individual plants.”

“There,” he said, “I discovered that the conservation of the island’s flora was only going to be achieved with the knowledge gained by botanical research, horticulture, exploration, advocacy, education, habitat protection and management — not to mention all of the political aspects that are required, too. And each one of these is a key element of what makes up the essence of a modern botanic garden.”

At a reception following the installation, William Danforth (right), chancellor emeritus, welcomed Wyse Jackson and his wife, Diane.

In 2000, Wyse Jackson was the lead author of the International Agenda for Botanic Gardens in Conservation, a policy framework for efforts by botanic gardens to contribute to biodiversity conservation. The agenda is now endorsed by some 500 botanic gardens. At the same time, he became involved in lobbying for the creation of a new worldwide initiative for plant conservation. This became the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, which was adopted by the United Nations Convention of Biological Diversity in April 2002.

“It was a pioneering approach to international biodiversity policy in that it proposed a series of measurable targets to be achieved within a set time frame,” he said. It was adopted by all the countries in the Biodiversity Convention, except the United States, which has not ratified this convention.

He then helped create the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation, a partnership of international organizations and institutions whose goal is to work together to achieve the objectives of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation.

The partnership, which Wyse Jackson has chaired since 2005, discussed ways to meet the 16 targets set for the global strategy at an international conference held at the Missouri Botanical Garden this summer.

George Engelmann

Engelmann, friend and adviser to St. Louis businessman and philanthropist Henry Shaw, emigrated from Germany to the United Sates in 1882. Engelmann earned an MD degree from the University of Wurzburg, but his dissertation was devoted to plant morphology, specifically aberrant and “monstrous” forms of plants.

He eventually set up a medical practice in St. Louis but devoted much of his time to collecting, describing and systematizing plants.

Wyse Jackson, who looked up Engelmann’s research in preparation for his installation, reported that Engelmann played a little known role in rescuing the French wine industry.

In the 1870s, the vineyards of France had been attacked by the insect pest Phylloxera, but Engelmann had noticed many wild vines in the Missouri region were resistant to these insects. The French government sent a scientist to St. Louis to consult with the Missouri state entomologist and Engelmann, who arranged to have millions of shoots and seeds of a wild vine of the Mississippi valley, Vitis riparia, collected and sent to France. This species became the rootstock for the French grape vines, Wyse Jackson said.

Engelmann, who was a founder and longtime president of the St. Louis Academy of Sciences and a founder of the National Academy of Sciences, encouraged Shaw to develop his garden to be of scientific value, not just of public use.

Engelmann plant collections, now at the Missouri Botanical Garden, contain many of the “type specimens” for western plants, the specimens to which the scientific name of a plant is formally attached. Three plant genera and a number of species also bear Engelmann’s name.

Engelmann was a member of the faculty of Washington University from 1856 until his death in 1884. Shaw, who famously declined to place the botanical garden under the supervision of Washington University in 1879, created the Engelmann professorship in 1885, the year after Engelmann’s death. At the same time, he established the Henry Shaw School of Botany at Washington University. Nineteen of the first 21 research doctorates conferred by the university were earned in botany.