Obituary: Joseph Ewan
Jackson, Ian, The Independent (London, England)
NO ACADEMIC subject is truly the creation of a single person, but, if George Sarton can be said, more or less, to have created the flourishing modern discipline of History of Science in the United States and elsewhere, it is hardly too much to add (as a footnote) that Joseph Ewan, who died last week at the age of 90, established the history of natural history in America as a subject of scholarship. He was himself, without question, the leading historian of American botany.
Joseph Ewan was born in Philadelphia in 1909 but grew up in Los Angeles. The surrounding countryside was then almost unspoilt and Ewan's weekend forays were the making of an excellent field naturalist. His earliest scientific paper, published while he was still in his teens, was on the California Black Rail.
He attended the University of California, graduating from Berkeley in 1934. He continued on, as a research assistant (1933- 37) to Willis Linn Jepson, the formidable last representative of what has rightly been called "the six-shooting botanical Wild West". Jepson was the greatest authority on California botany of his time, a solitary and enigmatic figure who continued to intrigue Ewan to the end of his life. His bibliographical tastes, historical interests and taxonomic prowess were a lasting inspiration. The less pleasant side of Jepson's temperament (which recalls A.E. Housman's) never seemed to trouble his assistant. Although not entirely an innocent, Ewan had an innate kindliness and charity that enabled him to forgive without forgetting.
It was an indication of Jepson's character, and not as a sign of any lingering Ewanian animosity, that he enjoyed telling the tale of how, when he and his fellow student Nesta Dunn went off to Nevada one weekend in 1934 to marry, Jepson (a lifelong bachelor) immediately reduced his wages, insisting that no man could serve two muses. He could not have been more wrong, for Joseph Ewan had in fact acquired a means of doubling his forces. Nesta Ewan (who survives him) collaborated on many of his later publications. Her husband liked to remind his readers of a favourite phrase of an earlier California botanist with an indispensable wife, John Gill Lemmon, who gratefully added the phrase "et uxor" to many of his publications.
Ewan went on to teach at the University of Colorado from 1937 to 1944, working on the taxonomy of Delphinium and a biographical dictionary, Rocky Mountain Naturalists (1950, revised and enlarged in 1981). Although widely recognised as an essential work of reference in North America, it has not achieved the international reputation it deserves. It is in fact a work on the order of the equally neglected Dictionary of Mauritius Biography or Longden's Northamptonshire and Rutland Clergy, recording even the most fleeting of passages, the transient invaders and not just the natives.
After war work in the Andes, exploring for wild sources of quinine, and a brief posting at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Ewan joined the faculty of Tulane University in New Orleans in 1947. He remained there until his retirement in 1977, producing a steady flow of articles and books on the history of American natural history, chiefly on the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Keith Crotz's bibliography Ewaniana (1989) lists 358 publications between 1928 and 1989; the final count now exceeds 400. No less significant is the dispersal of these articles in no fewer than 84 journals. Ewan liked to boast that he had been still more diffuse in the scattering of his scholarly remains than Jepson's notorious predecessor Edward Lee Greene.
No record has yet been compiled of his place in the footnotes of others, but these must run into the thousands. Without Ewan's assistance, as J.C. Beaglehole noted in his two-volume edition of The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks (1962), "the proper presentation of the journal …
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Publication information: Article title: Obituary: Joseph Ewan. Contributors: Jackson, Ian - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: December 17, 1999. Page number: 7. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.