Burger, William C. 1932–

views updated

Burger, William C. 1932–


Born September 8, 1932, in New York, NY; son of Adolf Paul (a building superintendent) and Ella Dorothea (a homemaker) Burger; married Melinda Lee (a homemaker); children: Helen J., Carolyn G. Ethnicity: "Caucasian." Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1953; Cornell University, M.Sc., 1959; Washington University (St. Louis, MO), Ph.D., 1961. Hobbies and other interests: Nature photography.


Home—Chicago, IL. Office—Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr., Chicago, IL 60605. Agent—Susan Ann Protter, 110 W. 40th St., Ste. 1408, New York, NY 10018.


Writer, educator, and curator. Imperial College of Agriculture, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, assistant professor, 1961-68; Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, IL, chair of Department of Botany, 1978-85, assistant curator and then curator, curator emeritus, 2000—.


Families of Flowering Plants in Ethiopia, Oklahoma State University Press (Stillwater, OK), 1967.

Notes on the Flora of Costa Rica, Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago, IL), 1968.

(Editor) Flora Costaricensis, Field Museum of Natural History (Chicago, IL), 1971.

Perfect Planet, Clever Species: How Unique Are We?, Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY), 2003.

Flowers: How They Changed the World, Prometheus Books (Amherst, NY), 2006.


Writer, educator, and curator William C. Burger spent the bulk of his career working in the Department of Botany at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, where he became curator emeritus. Prior to his work at the Field Museum, he served as a teacher at the Imperial College of Agriculture in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. Educated at Columbia, Cornell, and Washington University in St. Louis, he was fascinated with plant life, particularly flowers, and wrote several books in addition to his museum work.

In Flowers: How They Changed the World, Burger provides readers with a thorough overview of the background and uses of flowers, discussing their origins, how they have evolved over the years, and their varied uses, including assisting in the maintenance of genetic diversity in plant life and how they affect the various animals that depend upon them as a source of nutrients. Marit Taylor, in a review for Library Journal, observed that "Burger writes in a conversational and readable style." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly noted that "Burger convincingly argues that, while plants have changed the world, it's now time for humans … to protect their future." Booklist contributor Carol Haggas found Burger's effort to be "written in an appealing, conversational style," but did comment that the text might be a bit difficult for readers who have no previous knowledge of basic botany.

Burger once told CA: "Our primary motivation as scientists lies in the excitement of discovery. Though most discoveries may be small and trivial, they can be very satisfying when leading to new insights within larger frames of reference. Then follows the second source of pleasure in science: sharing one's discovery with colleagues. Finally, writing for a more general audience extends the pleasure of sharing across a wide readership.

"Having worked in a natural history museum over several decades, and having been inspired by such a museum as a boy, I have been influenced by a long tradition of exploration and scholarship. Many authors have been my mentors, from the hunting adventures of Theodore Roosevelt to the lively essays of Stephen Jay Gould.

"While I enjoy typing into my word processing program, I fear I'm deficient in the art of writing. And so I must revise, revise, and revise lots more. Sometimes I add newly discovered tidbits, rather like adding spice to a stew. More often, I recast and reword over and over again. Perhaps it is a bit tedious, but I think it's fun and, sad to say, the many revisions do seem to result in an improved text.

"I was inspired to write Perfect Planet, Clever Species: How Unique Are We? because I got really ticked off by a remark in the Sunday New York Times claiming that there must be thousands of technological societies in the galaxy. Sure, there may be three-million stars in our galaxy, but didn't the clod who wrote this understand the many unusual features of our star and our planet? That without plate tectonics we'd have neither large continents nor metallurgy? That dinosaurs had to get zapped for mammals to make their ascendancy? Didn't this fool realize that without flowering plants we simply wouldn't be here? And that western science required a unique social environment in which to develop and flourish? Obviously not! Then came the eureka moment. If these ideas could be strung together properly, it would make a nifty book. The message would be simple and celebratory: our human achievement (building radio telescopes, for example) just might be unique in the galaxy."



Booklist, March 15, 2006, Carol Haggas, review of Flowers: How They Changed the World, p. 11.

Library Journal, April 1, 2006, Marit Taylor, review of Flowers, p. 118.

Publishers Weekly, February 6, 2006, review of Flowers, p. 60.

Quarterly Review of Biology, March, 2004, Don Johanson, review of Perfect Planet, Clever Species: How Unique Are We?, p. 117.

Skeptical Inquirer, September-October, 2004, William Harwood, review of Perfect Planet, Clever Species, p. 55.

About this article

Burger, William C. 1932–

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article