An “interview” with Howard Irwin and William R. Anderson
The following are excerpts from letters received from the two principals in response to my solicitations for information
about the Planalto expeditions [Jackie Kallunki].
How did your association with The New York Botanical Garden, and the Planalto program, begin?
Irwin: My initial interest in NYBG grew out of school visits made during the ‘40s, at a time when busloads
of us descended on the Garden as well as other city-supported cultural institutions. The vastness of the place
and its total dedication to the plant world made a seminal impression that I still remember. As school kids, we
were guided through the museum, library, and herbarium (then filled up with wooden, glass-doored museum cases, in
which were stored folders filled with specimens), as well as outdoors and into the Conservatory (where the
admission was 10 cents). The hustle, conversation, and constant pushing ahead were so distracting to me that I
made a number of follow-up visits on my own, coming from Long Island by train and subway. I can remember making
one sortie into the grove of maples and discovering one specimen labeled Acer davidii, which seemed amazing for
its total lack of foliar teeth and lobes. I snatched a leaf to take home and check it out, to see if that species
really existed! I also recall standing outside the Conservatory before its seemingly huge Bauhaus doors and
entering to behold a huge royal palm, which I had never seen (except in books) as well as other tropicals, all
in a warm, humid atmosphere. It was all other-worldly and overwhelming to a 10-year-old. I still carry the image,
from my initial visit to the Garden as a school boy, of Dr. Britton and his secretary at the top of the stairs
leading to the Museum Building, trying to get our attention, before leading us inside to the building and the
wonders it held.
Some years later, when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin, after spending five years
as a Fulbright teacher of biology in British Guiana (now Guyana), I turned my attention back to NYBG, for it
was—and is—a world center of neotropical plant exploration. The Garden’s founder, Nathanial Lord Britton,
initiated that focus around the turn of the century and pursued it in connection with his consuming passion
for the flora of the West Indies. Decades later, in the 1950s, Bassett Maguire followed it up with a broad-based
tropical exploration program in northern South America, focusing on the Guayana Shield, the sandstone remnants
of one of the world’s oldest land surfaces, one that exists today in the flat-topped “tepuis” of interior
Venezuela and adjacent Brazil and Guyana. A vigorous, expansive explorer and a consummate fund-seeker, Bassett
mounted several simultaneous expeditions with the support of the just-born National Science Foundation to
botanically explore the Guayana Shield, and attracted a young, talented staff to the Garden to help him with the
arduous field work. Among them were John Wurdack, Richard Cowan, and Stephen Tillett. Shortly after, as these
three announced that they were moving on to other institutions, I came onto the market, so to speak, having just
completed my doctorate in 1960. Bassett invited me, Lubbert Westra (Nationaal Herbarium Nederland, Utrecht
University) and Ghillean Prance (recently retired from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) to join the NYBG staff and
work with him in the field and herbarium.
After a few years’ immersion in that effort, I decided to spread that focus southward to the Brazilian Planalto.
With NSF support, I planned a series of 4- to 6-month field trips to destinations in the Planalto, all to be
reached by jeep and a converted school bus, over a period of about eight years, from 1964 to 1972. Colleagues
included such principals as Ray Harley of Kew, Dieter Wasshausen and Tom Soderstrom of the Smithsonian, Bill
Anderson of the University of Michigan, and several graduate students, as well as a nucleus of three or four
Brazilian field assistants. Specimen labels reflect the changing roster of participants, as do the field books.
My two faithful field helpers were Raimundo Reis dos Santos, who was especially valued as a cook, and Raimundo
Souza, who was a great tree climber and possessed a fantastic memory for places and the sequence of times we
visited them. Many of the various principals (especially from abroad) had been unknown to me, but came with
strong recommendations for their scientific dedication and promise as cooperative field hands.
As most of the collection sites had been little explored previously, we all contributed to a general, comprehensive
collection as well as pursuing our own taxonomic interests. As much as possible, each collection was made in sets
of 10, and each was assigned a field number in the drying papers and in the field book. My job was to keep the
field book up to date, as well as to coordinate the day’s activities, select camp sites, be sure everyone was
adequately fed, and dispense the weekly ration of anti-malarial prophylactics (for which the Brazilians dubbed me
“Dr. Pilula”). All of which was done in a spirit of collegiality and good humor. The language of the camp was
Portuguese, for the most part, to keep everyone in touch (though it caused some consternation among some of the
principals), and helped prevent the all-too-common tendency to have a camp divide along linguistic lines. To
promote a spirit of unity, we each enjoyed a cup of “pinga-com-limão” (crude rum with lime juice) as supper time
approached each day, sat around a common table for a dinner of rice, beans and whatever fish or meat happened to be
caught that day, bantered about the day’s events, and discussed plans for the coming day(s). Much camp time was
devoted to changing the presses (that is, removing and packaging the dried specimen sheets, and reloading with fresh
material). For me, this was the time to make the daily entries in the field book. Though occasional disputes would
break out, cool heads generally prevailed, as we kept to our basic purpose, and, in the end, I believe everyone felt
that all was done fairly and with good camaraderie.
During this period of intense field work, I kept in close contact with Bassett by air mail (no email then!) as well
as with the Garden’s director-president, William C. Steere. As Bill Steere was about to retire, the question of
succession arose. Bill was such a commanding presence, that the Board of Managers relied heavily on his judgment.
Bassett retired from consideration because of his age. Rather than mounting a national search, Bill and Bassett
asked me of my interest. I expressed some doubt, not being known by many of the Managers, but eventually threw my
hat in the ring. What followed was my education on botanical garden administration and politics. In 1968, I was
promoted to head curator (while Bassett, the long-term holder of that office, became vice-president for science) and
in 1971, to Executive Director. Things moved very quickly thereafter, and by 1973 I was elected the Garden’s president.
And, Bill, how did your participation in the Planalto expeditions come about?
Anderson: Chris and I had completed our degrees at the University of Michigan in the summer of 1971. Because
her family lived in Queens, we had been visiting the Garden at least once a year since we became engaged in 1967, and
I was known there, as was my interest in Malpighiaceae. And, of course, my advisor Rogers McVaugh was well known to
Bassett Maguire, Art Cronquist, Bill Steere, and others. Howard’s promotion to Executive Director opened a place in
the Herbarium staff. He wanted his ongoing program of collection in the Planalto to continue, and he knew not only of
my interest in malpighs but also of my extensive prior experience in the field, especially in Mexico. Because the
Malpighiaceae are so well-represented in the Planalto, I was a natural for that slot. Moreover, Bassett was keen to have
me go there to work up the malpighs for his series on the Guayana Highland flora, so my hiring worked for both Bassett
and Howard. I started work there in the fall of ‘71. In January ’72, we went together to Brazil on Howard’s last grant,
and he stayed for about two weeks while I got my feet wet. Then he returned to New York, and I continued in charge the
rest of those three months.
What can you tell us about the Brazilian participants? Were they employed at the University of Brasília where the project was based?
Anderson: Sidney Fonsêca was an employee of UB, the only one. He was collector, driver, mechanic, diplomat, very
much primus inter pares. He was the one person we had to have; the others could be replaced, and were from time to time,
but without Sidney we would have been out of business.
Raimundo Reis dos Santos and Raimundo Souza (called Raimundinho to differentiate him from Reis) worked at IAN (Instituto
Agronomico do Norte) in Belém for João Murça Pires. When the University of Brasília was starting up, Murça was chosen to
go to Brasília for a year or two to set up the herbarium and get a program started.
Irwin: When Murça was rather unhappily reassigned to Brasília, Reis went with him, nominally as a plant collector.
He was a very personable North Brazilian and enjoyed being around people and serving the expedition’s principals. He was a good
kitchen manager and camp cook.
Raimundo Souza served at IAN in Belém as another plant collector and as a specialist tree climber who gathered botanical
specimens from on high. In my years in the field, I’ve never encountered a better climber-collector. The two Raimundos had
known each other for years and worked extremely well together. I knew them both from 1964 through 1972, and perhaps a bit
earlier when I worked with Pires in Amapá in ’60-’61. In Brasília, I helped them rent a small house in nearby Sobradinho,
but their families remained in Belém.
Sidney Fonsêca began with us simply as a bus driver, but it soon became apparent that his interest and skills went far beyond that.
He was a well organized, personable field assistant who was ready to help or take charge of those less able. In some parts of
Brazil we worked in, people were suspicious of or even hostile toward “brancos” from North America like me, but Sidney’s charm
soon won them over rather magically and even made it possible for us to camp on their land—instead of being driven off with buckshot.
Sidney and I became good friends.
He brought Joaquim Fonsêca to our team, and Joaquim’s skill as a driver soon became apparent. Unlike Sidney, Joaquim was quiet and
not outgoing, but worked well as a camp guard and cook, and as a press changer during the day.
Anderson: Joaquim was Sidney's brother-in-law (his sister was Sidney's wife). Joaquim was a professional driver; when
he wasn't in the field with us he drove a bus. He was the best driver I've ever known, very careful, and could get that Blue
Bird bus in and out of the most amazing places. He never collected. He stayed in camp during the day, watching the driers,
and cooked for us.
Another Brazilian on some of the trips was Eunice Onishi. How did she become involved?
Irwin: I have only warm memories of her. She was on the staff of the University of Campinas. Her boss was Dr. Gustav
Brieger, who (along with Murça Pires) had been lent to the newly established University of Brasília to launch its science program.
He recommended that I take Eunice into the field, and she soon proved fit, useful, and very adaptable.
I’m wondering how you decided to go where you did? Were you trying to relocate particular species at localities from which
they were previously collected? Were you following new highways? Trying to collect in different habitats?
Irwin: The itineraries we followed were essentially determined by my reviewing the collection data indicated by such
early workers as Pohl, Glaziou, and others, and doing what I could to match their sites with recently published road maps.
I hoped to recollect critical legume material as much as possible where they had, record habitat information (mostly lacking
from their data), and, of course, pursue my own interest in the Cassia tribe. Many hours were spent tabulating their routes
and attempting to match them up with modern road maps. Eventually I was able to develop their approximate routes and used
those estimates in planning my own itineraries.
Did you stay in a particular camp for several days and walk out from there, leaving Joaquim to take care of the dryers and
to watch the camp? Or did you leave him and the bus there, but drive out with Sidney in the other vehicle?
Irwin: Our daily procedures in camp and out in the field were essentially as you describe them. The location of
campsites was determined by reviewing road maps and by my personal knowledge of the area, as refined by my eyeballing the
scene as we traveled. We generally stayed at a site for a week or so, or until the surrounding region was essentially
“collected out” for that time. During the years I worked the region, we returned at different times to some of the most
productive. In mountainous areas, our camps were fairly close, one to the next. In general, I’d say they were from 10 km
to 50 km apart.
We generally radiated from our camps into the surrounding area, initially on foot and then by making sorties by jeep.
Some of the jeep trips turned out to be time-consuming and treacherous. Bridges that spanned deeply worn creek beds were
maintained not by a state or municipal service but by the users—principally truck and bus drivers, and often by bus passengers,
too. More than once we encountered a massive backup of trucks and busses, with passengers encamped in make-shift tent colonies
spread over the nearby countryside. Of course, we all pitched in and helped as best we could. We were eternally amazed at the
ingenuity and inventiveness of the Brazilian truck drivers. They not only were masters of their machines but also seasoned road
repairmen and carpenters, and they took whatever befell them with good humor and cooperation.
Copyright © 2007, The New York Botanical Garden
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