John was born on March 4, 1951, in Illinois and received his education on the East Coast, graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1975. After returning from his first two-month plant collecting expedition to Peru, he began his graduate work in tropical botany at Duke University. John pursued studies in Costa Rica and Panama on the systematics of Heliconia, a banana relative, as the subject of his dissertation and received his PhD degree in botany in 1981. Since then he has traveled to tropical areas around the world, including Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, China, Madagascar, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, French Guiana, and the Caribbean, studying and collecting heliconias, gingers, and bananas. John was the director of research at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota, Florida, from 1984 to 1988. After that, he was appointed curator and research scientist in the Department of Botany at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. He was chairman of that Department from 1997 to 2006.
John is the writer of over 100 scientific and popular papers on tropical botany. He was the president executive director of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation and founder/chair of the Tropical Biology Section of the Botanical Society of America. He also was the editor and the president of the Heliconia Society International, which is dedicated to furthering the appreciation, understanding, and use of heliconias and related plants in horticulture. His books, entitled Heliconia: An Identification Guide, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press, and Heliconias – Las Lamaradas de la Selva Colombiana, published in Bogotá, include information on the botany and horticulture of these plants. A New Century of Biology – Essays for an Integrated Discipline co-edited with Gary Barrett was published in 2001. In 2005, his Plant Conservation: A recent history appraisal was published. He also is working on Genera Zingiberarum, which will be a classification and treatise of the genera of the Zingiberales, including bananas, heliconias, gingers, and relatives.
John’s research interests focus on the phylogeny of the monocotyledons and the systematics of Heliconia, gingers, and other tropical Zingiberales. His field studies are concentrated on the evolution of breeding and pollination systems in plants, genetic variation and speciation in tropical angiosperms and conservation of tropical ecosystems. With other members of the Department of Botany he completed a floristic survey of Burma in 2003. He also has developed new taxonomy tools for species identifications, including DNA barcodes for plants and an instant image identification by stems.
John was elected to the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in 2001.