Wumpty, Fellow of the Linen Society

Following his retirement on 30 November 1976 W. T. Stearn continued to work, both at the Natural History Museum (South Kensington is ten stops on the District Line from Kew Gardens) and at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, where his home in High Park Road gave him access to the herbarium and library, a short bicycle trip away.

Extracted from the Wikipedia entry:

“William Thomas Stearn /stɜːrn/ CBE FLS VMH (16 April 1911 – 9 May 2001) was a British botanist. Born in Cambridge in 1911, he was largely self-educated, and developed an early interest in books and natural history. His initial work experience was at a Cambridge bookshop, but he also had a position as an assistant in the university botany department.

While at the bookshop, he was offered a position as a librarian at the Royal Horticultural Society in London (1933–1952). From there he moved to the Natural History Museum as a scientific officer in the botany department (1952–1976). After his retirement, he continued working there, writing, and serving on a number of professional bodies related to his work, including the Linnean Society, of which he became president. He also taught botany at Cambridge University as a visiting professor (1977–1983).

Stearn is known for his work in botanical taxonomy and botanical history, particularly classical botanical literature, botanical illustration and for his studies of the Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus. His best known books are his Dictionary of Plant Names for Gardeners, a popular guide to the scientific names of plants, and his Botanical Latin for scientists.

On 3 August 1940, he married Eldwyth Ruth Alford (1910–2013), by whom he had a son and two daughters, and who collaborated with him in much of his work. Ruth Alford was a secondary school teacher from Tavistock, Devon, the daughter of Roger Rice Alford a Methodist preacher and mayor of Tavistock. When their engagement was announced in The Times, Stearn was vastly amused to see that he was described as a “Fellow of the Linen Society”, a typographical error for Linnean Society. Stearn was brought up an Anglican, but was a conscientious objector and after the Second World War he became a Quaker.

Within a few years after Stearn returned from the war, his Art of Botanical Illustration (1950) was published, remaining the standard work on the subject to this day. There was, however, some bibliographic confusion – Collins, the publisher, had planned a book on botanical art for its New Naturalist series, but mistakenly commissioned both Stearn and the art historian Wilfred Blunt independently to produce the work. After the error was discovered the two decided to collaborate; Blunt wrote the work while Stearn edited and revised it. When it was published, Blunt’s name was on the title page, while Stearn was only acknowledged in the preface. The omission was not rectified till he prepared the second edition in 1994, although the preface reveals Stearn’s extensive contribution.

In his later years, following official retirement in 1976 he continued to live in Kew, Richmond. His entry in Who’s Who lists his interests as “gardening and talking”. He died on 9 May 2001 of pneumonia at Kingston Hospital, Kingston upon Thames, at the age of 90.

Professor Stearn had a reputation for his encyclopedic knowledge, geniality, wit and generosity with his time and knowledge, being always willing to contribute to the work of others. He had a mischievous sense of fun and was famous for his anecdotes while lecturing, while his colleagues recalled that “he had a happy genius for friendship”. He was described as having a striking figure, “a small man, his pink face topped with a thatch of white hair”, and earned the nickname of “Wumpty” after his signature of “Wm. T. Stearn”…”

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