Livingston, Burton Edward

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Livingston, Burton Edward

(b.Grand Rapids, Michigan, 9 February 1875;d,Baltimore, Maryland, 8 February 1948)

plant physiology, physiological ecology.

The son of Benjamin and Keziah Livingston, Burton was raised in a home and environment that gave him early contact with and love of flora and natural history. Since his father was a contractor in the street paving and sewer construction business, he became familiar with tools and machinery. Moreover, a large home library and access to simple microscopes gave him considerable familiarity with science before he entered school. In high school Livingston became proficient in languages and began a herbarium. Upon graduation he worked in a Short Hills, New Jersey, nursery and then entered the University of Michigan in 1894, receiving the hours of advanced credit in botany. He was awarded the B.S. degree in 1898 and received the Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1901. From 1899 to 1904 he was assistant in plant physiology at Chicago, then became a soil expert for the U.S. Bureau of Soils, Department of Agriculture, from 1905 to 1906. He was a staff member of the department of botanical research at the desert laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington at Tucson, Arizona, from 1906 to 1909; professor of plant physiology at Johns Hopkins University from 1909 to 1940; and director of the laboratory of plant physiology at Johns Hopkins from 1913 to 1940. His marriage to Grace Johnson in 1905 ended in divorce in 1918; he married Marguerite Anna Brennan MacPhilips in 1921 He had no children.

Livingston’s early interests and training prepared him for a research career in plant physiology at a time when that science was not given academic standing at most American universities. It was mainly through his efforts at Johns Hopkins that plant physiology was gradually given full standing elsewhere. His interests were broad but centered mainly on the water relations of plants. He studied soil moisture and the evaporative power of the environment, with special emphasis on the effects of light, temperature, wind, and other factors on foliar transpiring power. His careful compilations of data on the daily course of transpiration, the seasonal soil moisture conditions, the water-supplying power of soils in relation to wilting, and the oxygen-supplying ability of soils in relation to seed germination contributed immensely to the foundations of modern physiological plant ecology.

Livingston invented the porous cup atmometer, an instrument for measuring the evaporating capacity of air; the auto-irrigator, for automatic control of soil moisture of potted plants; water-absorbing points for measuring the water-supplying power of soil; and rotating tables for assuring equal exposure of plant cultures to environmental conditions. These inventions or modifications of them are still in use.

Livingston’s laboratory became a mecca for plant physiologists, and more than 300 papers were published with his students and colleagues. His book The Role of Diffusion and Osmotic Pressure in Plants (1903) is still an authoritative summary of the early work. In 1921 he published with Forrest Shreve The Vegetation of the United States as Determined by Climatic Conditions. His translation, with extensive editorial comment, of V. I. Palladin’s Plant Physiology in 1918 gave the work the impetus it needed to become the standard American textbook in plant physiology for many years. It ran to three editions, the last appearing in 1926.


See D. T. MacDougal, “Burton Edward Livingston (1875-1948),” in Yearbook, American Philosophical Society,12 (1948), 278-280; and an article on Livingston in National Cyclopedia of American Biography,36 (1950), 334; and C. A. Shull, “Burton Edward Livingston (1875-1948),” in Science,107 (1948), 558-560; and “Burton Edward Livingston (1875-1948),” in Plant Physiology,23 (1948), iii-vii.

A. D. Krikorian

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Livingston, Burton Edward

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