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Harlan Lewis -- In Memoriam

Harlan-LewisProfessor Emeritus Harlan Lewis, who earned the first Ph.D. in botany at UCLA and later became dean of the life sciences from 1962-1981, died on Dec. 12, 2008, at his home in Pacific Palisades, one month shy of his 90th birthday. He had been unable to regain his health after suffering a back injury last year.

In the annals of evolutionary biology, Harlan Lewis was one of the early pioneers on genetics of plant speciation. During the middle of the 20th century, when the field of speciation was emerging through the reworking and refinement of Darwin’s observations on origins of species, Lewis was among a group of researchers dedicated to unraveling genetic mechanisms of these processes. He was a leader in the movement to understand the cytogenetics of populations and species and, together with other plant researchers and their students, provided the examples that would rewrite textbooks.

Lewis was born on Jan. 8, 1919, in Redlands, Calif. He was already an enthusiastic plant collector at age 10. He graduated in 1937 from Redlands High School before attending San Bernardino Valley College and earning an A.A. degree in 1939. He then transferred to UCLA in 1939 and received his M.A. degree in 1942.

During the war years, Lewis was able to continue his plant studies by also working at Cal Tech on a project concerned with camouflage and plants. Although he served briefly in post-Hitler Europe, he was able to complete his dissertation in 1946 and receive a Ph.D. in botany.

Lewis focused much of his research on a plant that grows in California called Clarkia, a genus that is now automatically associated with him. Working out the origin of this species, Lewis and his new wife, Margaret, also a botanist, began fixing root tips and collecting seeds of central California’s clarkias. Together with their graduate students, the couple established breeding populations of these annuals in an experimental garden at UCLA. His studies continued after he was awarded a post-doctorate fellowship to attend the John Innes Horticultural Institution at Merton Park in England.

It was through cytogenetics, coupled with detailed ecological studies, that Lewis made his mark. Returning from England in 1948, the then-assistant professor soon began collaborating with graduate students to sort out the rich evolutionary history for Clarkia. In 1955, the Lewises published a long-awaited monograph on Clarkia, which adopted the biological species concept and helped greatly to clarify its origins.

In that same year, he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement and received a Guggenheim Fellowship to continue his groundbreaking studies. During his two decades as dean under Chancellors Franklin Murphy and Charles Young, Lewis helped to assemble an excellent collection of research scientists in the life sciences, including senior members of the faculty who became leaders in emerging fields of molecular biology. But he never gave up teaching in the classroom, whenever he could spare the time.

Lewis was recognized continuously for his research and leadership in the field, including being elected president of the Pacific Division of the Botanical Society of America. He also served on numerous editorial boards and was also named a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences. As a professor emeritus, he continued to study plants after he retired in 1982. He was also instrumental in improving services for the emeriti at UCLA and was named 2006 Dickson Emeritus Professor of the Year."Those who knew Harlan Lewis recognized an individual who worked diligently to meld the fields of systematics, genetics and evolution, with a burning interest in defining the nature of species in the context of ecology," said his colleague, Botany Professor Arthur Gibson. "He had a quick mind and attacked research projects with creative and analytical approaches that were cutting edge for his time. … For all of us, he set a standard of excellence that few scientists ever reach."
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