RICHARD SUMNER COWAN
Photo of Dick Cowan

Dick was born on January 23, 1921, in Crawfordsville, Indiana, and was educated in Florida. In 1938, he returned to his birthplace, and in June 1941 married Mary Frances Minnick. He received an AB degree at Wabash College in 1942. In 1943, he joined the Navy (Seabees) and served in the Pacific. He collected plants on Tinian, despite the danger from snipers. He received his MS degree in Hawaii in 1948 and got a job at the New York Botanical Garden. He participated in two trips to the Lost World (tepuis) of Venezuela, the first being a five-month trip beginning in October 1950. In 1952, he completed a PhD degree at Columbia University and continued to work at the Botanical Garden. He went back to South America to collect in Amapa (Brazil) and French Guiana.

In May 1957, Dick became an associate curator in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution and continued field work in South America. He received several rapid promotions: assistant director of the National Museum of Natural History (1962), then deputy director of the Museum (mid-1965), and director (late 1965-72). In spite of his administrative responsibilities, he was secretary-general of the 1969 International Botanical Congress in Seattle and an organizer of the first International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology in 1972. After 1972, Dick was appointed senior botanist in the Department of Botany. On October 31, 1985, he officially retired from the Smithsonian.

Dick was a member of many societies, often an officer, including president (1970) of the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, and vice president (1978) and president (1979) of the Botanical Society of Washington. Dick’s involvement with the International Association for Plant Taxonomy warrants special comment. He served in almost every capacity: editor of Taxon and regional treasurer (1963-85), administrator of finances, vice president (1975-81), and president (1981-85). He is best known as second author of one of the key reference works in plant taxonomy: the six volume work (7,000 pages), Taxonomic Literature, ed. 2 (197688), a bibliographic survey of all taxonomic botanical books published for 200 years, ca.1740-1940. It is a work that makes taxonomic zoologists drool with envy.

Among the honors accorded him are: New York Botanical Garden Distinguished Service Award (1968), the Henry Allen Gleason Award of the New York Botanical Garden (1968) for his Swartzia revision, Smithsonian Institution Special Achievement Award (1968), Citation of Special Recognition by Associates of the National Agricultural Library (1979, with medal, for Taxonomic Literature), Commemorative Scroll Award of the Australian Systematic Botany Society, as an expression of gratitude of Australian botanists for Taxonomic Literature (1988), and Founder’s Medal of the Society for the History and Bibliography of Natural History (1990).

Dick moved to Perth in 1986 and began studying Australian Acacia for the Flora of Australia, as well as other Australian mimosoids. The December 1985 issue of Brittonia was dedicated to him on the occasion of his departure for Australia. He married Roberta Ann Tobias August 23, 1986. Dick had a son, Michael Norman Sumner Cowan, and a daughter from his first marriage. Following a stroke in June 1997, from which he recovered, and head trauma following a fall, he died in Perth on November 17, 1997.

Dick was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 1961. He was a member of the flora and fauna committee. He was a faithful attendee at outings and annual meetings and was always ready to do his share. His career at the New York Botanic Garden and in the Botany Department at the Smithsonian was coincident with Washington Biologists’ Field Club member John Wurdack’s time there. Some of that close relationship was expressed in Dick’s penultimate publication: My friend John [Wurdack]. BioLania Ed. Esp. 6: 103-108, 1997.