Anderson, Edgar

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(b. Forestville, New York, 9 November 1897; d. St. Louis, Missouri, 18 June 1969)

plant genetics.

The son of A. Crosby Anderson, a private school administrator who later became a professor of dairy husbandry at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), and Inez Evora Shannon Anderson, Edgar was from the age of three brought up in a college environment. Throughout his childhood he was surrounded by cultivated houseplants, which his mother carefully tended, in which he took great interest, and on which he experimented while a child. At Michigan Agricultural College, which he entered at the age of sixteen, almost his only extracurricular activity was the Horticultural Society. After graduation he served briefly during World War I in the Naval Reserve as Gunner’s Mate Second Class. In 1919 he became a graduate student at Bussey Institution of Harvard University.

In graduate school his interests and character were molded by life among a small group of brilliant, carefully selected graduate students who had almost continuous association with a few of the most outstanding life scientists of their day. His capacity for making precise, detailed observations of plants was developed by association with his major professor, Edward M. East. The deeply religious attitude of friendliness and humanity that he acquired from his parents was broadened when he left the Methodist Church and adopted the Quaker faith, which he maintained with lifelong devotion. For two years he courted Dorothy Moore, a laboratory assistant who had graduated in botany at Wellesley College. and he married her in 1923, the year after he received his Ph.D. During the remaining forty-six years of his life she gave him constant encouragement in his work. They had one daughter, Phoebe. During his graduate years frequent walks in the countryside made him aware of native plants in addition to those in gardens.

In 1923 Anderson was appointed geneticist at the Missouri Botanical Garden and assistant professor of botany at neighboring Washington University. Except for a return for four years to Harvard and the Bussey (1931–1935), his entire career was spent in these two St. Louis institutions.

His association with Jesse Greenman, a leading taxonomist, made him aware of the complexity of variation in plant genera and species. He decided to investigate plants not by the relatively casual, subjective methods that were then in vogue, but by precise measurements of living individuals in populations. Studying the native species of blue flag Iris, he quickly found that variation within each of two species, I. versicolor and I. virginica, is of a different nature from that which makes up the differences between the species. He finally concluded that the origin of I. versicolor could be explained only by assuming that it is a stabilized hybrid or allopolyploid containing the entire set of chromosomes belonging to I. virginica plus another set that belongs to an Alaskan species, I. setosa var. interior. He thus became a leading investigator of hybridization as a source of variation within species.

During his return to Harvard and the Bussey his association with another botanist from Missouri, Robert Woodson, strengthened his belief in the importance of hybridization. It was fully confirmed by his collaboration with Karl Sax on the genus Tradescantia. Sax, formerly a fellow graduate student who returned to the Bussey in 1929, was a leading authority on plant chromosomes and did much to make Anderson aware of their importance for investigating hybridization. The research on Tradescantia was continued after his return to St. Louis in 1935 and led to his concept of introgression, a term that he gave to a succession of three processes: interspecific hybridization, backcrossing to one of the parental species, and natural selection of highly adaptive gene combinations generated by the in creased added variation derived from the non recurrent species.

The years 1935–1954 were Anderson’s most productive period. His position at the Missouri Botanical Garden stimulated his desire to produce new and improved cultivated plants for mid western gardens. A trip to the Balkans in 1934 convinced him that, because of its similarity in climate to the American Midwest, this region was the most promising source of new varieties. Several that he produced, particularly in ivy and boxwood, are now widely grown. Throughout thirty-four years as the garden’s geneticist, including three years as its director, he produced a flood of short, popular articles on gardening.

Throughout conversations and collaboration with botanists of cultivated plants, particularly Thomas Whitaker, his former Bussey roommate Paul Mangelsdorf, and R. G. Reeves of Texas. Anderson came to realize that the precise methods for recording variation that he had developed would be particularly valuable for investigating crop plants such as maize. The series of papers published on this crop between 1940 and 1954 were original and stimulating. Two of his graduate students, Hugh Cutler and William L. Brown, became leading botanists devoted to maize.

In his two books, Introgressive Hybridization (1949) and Plants, Man, and Life (1952), Anderson distilled his research accomplishments and philosophy of life. The latter book, reprinted in 1967 by the University of California Press, has gained renewed popularity.

He was named director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in 1954, but resigned in 1957. He was not fitted to be an administrator either by ability or temperament. Anderson was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He served as president of the Botanical Society of America, the Herb Society of America, and the Society for the Study of Evolution.

During the last twelve years of his life he suffered recurrent illness and made no more contributions to science. Nevertheless, to the end he remained devoted to the Botanical Garden, and he continued to publish popular articles on horticulture. On 18 June 1969 he died of a heart attack while writing one of these papers.


I. Original Works. A complete bibliography, prepared by Krna R. Eisendrath, is in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 59 (1972), 346–351. Some of Anderson’s most significant publications include “The Problem of Species in the Northern Blue Flags. Iris versicolor L. and Iris virginica L.” in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 15 (1928), 241–332; “The Species of Tradescantia Indigenous to the United Slates,” in Conitributions from the Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, 9 (1935), 1–132, written with Robert E. Woodson: “A Cytological Monograph of the American Species of Tradescantia,” in Botanical Gazette. 97 , 433–476. written with Karl Sax; “An Experimental Study of Hybridization in the Genus Apocynum,” in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 23 (1936), 159–168: “The Species Problem in Iris.” ibid., 457–509; “Hybridization in Tradescantia. III. The Evidence for Introgressive Hybridization.” in American Journal of Botany, 25 (1938), 396–402. written with Leslie Hubricht; and “Recombination in Species Crosses,” in Genetics, 24 (1939), 668–698.

“Races of Zea mays. I . Their Recognition and Classification,” in Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 29 (1942), 69–88, written with Hugh C. Cutle: “Maize in Mexico—A Preliminary Survey,” ibid., 33 (1946), 147–247; “The Northern Flint Corns,” ibid., 34 (1947). 1–28, written with William L. Brown; “The Southern Dent Corns,” ibid., 35 (1948), 225–268, written with William L. Brown; Introgressive Hybridization (New York, 1949); “Origin of Corn Belt Maize and Its Genetic Significance,” in John W. Gowen, ed., Heterosis (Ames, Iowa. 1952), 124–148; Plants, Man, and Life (New York, 1952; repr. Berkeley, 1967); “Introgressive Hybridization,” in Biological Reviews, Cambridge Philosophical Society, 28 (1953), 280–307; “The Role of Hybridization in Evolution,” in Willis H. Johnson and William C. Steere. eds., This Is Life: Essays in Modern Biology (New York, 1962), 287–314.

II. Secondary Literature.Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 59 (1972), a volume dedicated to Anderson, contains a biographical sketch, recollections and reminiscences by friends and students, and a complete bibliography. See also the article by G. Ledyard Stebbins in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 49 (1978), 3–23.

G. Ledyard Stebbins

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Anderson, Edgar

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