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Society for the History of Natural History

Awards, Honours and Medals

William Thomas Stearn

William Thomas Stearn

Born Chesterton, Cambridge 11 April 1911; died Richmond, Surrey 9 May 2001. Founder member, botanist, bibliographer and historian of natural history.

William Stearn was an outstanding botanical scholar, deemed the complete naturalist and would not have agreed with this view or his obituary in The Times when described as “acknowledged as the greatest botanical authority of the twentieth century”. Naturally modest, a self-made authority without a formal university education who besides being a world authority on taxonomy was a highly respected horticultural botanist.

He was born at Chesterton, Cambridge, one of four children whose father died when he was 11 years old but he gained a scholarship to Cambridge High School for boys and was the secretary of the Natural History Society. His enthusiasm for botany was rewarded by being given access to the library and herbarium in the University Botany School. Because of his family circumstances he furthered his studies through employment at Bowes & Bowes antiquarian bookshop in Cambridge, while building a wide circle of friendships at the Botany School. He started publishing a stream of papers and botanical bibliographies. These were well received through his meticulous and single-minded approach to his work, especially when he became the Librarian at The Lindley Library of The Royal Horticultural Society. He learnt Swedish and this greatly helped during his study of Linnaeus. His enthusiasm for taxonomy resulted in many successful collaborations, for example, in the preparation of the Flora Europaea.

As a Quaker, he would not bear arms and was accepted by the Royal Air Force Medical Corps. and while waiting for planes, he wrote material for an etymological dictionary of botanical names. He was posted to RAF intelligence duties in India and Burma and again compiled information which subsequently resulted in publications on Himalayan orchids and Indian Trees. On return to the UK, he completed the Royal Horticultural Society dictionary of gardening. His skill in identifying plants was well known to generations of botanists and he was the central figure in compiling the International code of nomenclature for cultivated plants.

From 1953 to 1976 he worked at the British Museum (Natural History), retiring as a Senior Principal Scientific Officer before tackling the definitive The Natural History Museum at South Kensington. His many awards included the Linnean Gold Medal of The Linnean Society of London (1976), and the Society for the History of Natural History’s Founders’ Medal in 1986. In 1997 he was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

© D. R. P. Leonard

Based on V. Heywood, 2002. William Thomas Stearn, CBE, VMH (1911 – 2001) – an appreciation. Archives of natural history 29 (2): 129–143.

Additional references

Other contributions relating to Professor Stearn published in the Society journal are:

  • Bibliography of William Thomas Stearn (1911-2001) [by E. C. Nelson & R. Desmond]. Archives of natural history 29 (2): 144-170.
  • William T. Stearn and Joseph Ewan: letters from a friendship [by K. Kleinman]. Archives of natural history 29 (2): 171-176.

W. T. Stearn published numerous papers in the Society’s journal; titles may be obtained from the indexes for volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 11, 16.