© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

After four decades leading the Missouri Botanical Garden, Peter Raven turns over a new leaf

Peter Raven
St. Louis Public Radio file photo
Dr. Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden (UPI file photo)

Once every three months, Peter Raven pays a visit to his dermatologist. Summers spent at 10,000 feet, hiking northern California's Sierra Nevada Mountains and roaming the sand dunes and vacant lots of San Francisco take their toll. "That did a real number on my skin. Of course, nobody thought a thing about the sun in the 1950s," Raven said, describing a boyhood spent outdoors, rearing butterflies, collecting insects and gathering plants.  

But his interest in nature was more than a boy's passing fancy. At 9, he joined the student section of the California Academy of Sciences. At 12, he started collecting plants. At 14, he began serving as a naturalist on Sierra Club outings. Still in high school, he collected plants for the curator of botany at the California Academy of Sciences and contributed to a flora of San Francisco, an account of all the plants in the city. Roaming through the Presidio, the teenager came across species of plants new to science.

Such an accomplished beginning fits Raven, long-time president of the Missouri Botanical Garden. After four decades at the helm of the Garden, as his retirement approaches on Sept. 1, colleagues, former students and fellow administrators call Raven a brilliant scientist, a visionary leader and a people person. They describe a man with a great sense of humor and an intense passion for the planet and its living things.

How does a garden grow?

Raven first visited the Missouri Botanical Garden in the summer of 1961. He had just spent a year in England as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the British Museum. "I bought a car over there, an English Ford," he said. "I shipped the car to Boston and drove back across the country with my father who flew out east to meet me. That was absolutely great," he said.

But the Garden was only one stop on their cross-country road trip. To aid in his research, Raven's tour hit many of the nation's top botanical institutions, including Harvard, the New York Botanical Garden, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the Field Museum in Chicago. Botanical institutions thinned out as he moved West, but Raven was never one to waste an opportunity.

"There we drove around collecting plants," he said.

Though the Garden of the early 1960s was not today's global institution that Raven has done so much to shape, it has always been known for its botanical research. Raven earned his Ph.D. from UCLA where he knew of several professors who studied at the Garden and Washington University. "In 1960, just as I was leaving for England, Life Magazine came out with a full page spread of the Climatron," Raven recalled. "That further popularized the place in my mind."

A rising star

Before coming to St. Louis, Raven spent nine years on the faculty at Stanford starting in 1962. "He was a real rising star in biology," said Peter Hoch, Garden curator and Raven's first Ph.D. student at the Garden in 1972. Hoch took a class from Raven as an undergraduate at Stanford.

"It turned out to be the last course he taught at Stanford before he moved to St. Louis," Hoch said. "He gave his last talk, which was a very impassioned conservation-based talk and he got a standing ovation from the class. I've seen that lots of times. Sometimes at the end, he's practically choked up because he gets so passionate about it and wants to make sure people understand the issues and how important they are to everyone."

Raven's passion for conservation and preserving the world's biodiversity is present in all aspects of his work. And it's not something he came by recently. "He was one of the early people to realize that there was a conservation crisis, in the mid- to late '60s," Hoch said. "He published a paper in Science in 1968 on forest defoliation. He was a leader in that whole area from the beginning." 

Much of the garden's beautiful horticulture display was built during Peter Raven's tenure.

Raven took the helm of the Garden in 1971. According to Olga Martha Montiel, the Garden's vice president for conservation and sustainable development, the Garden has a three-part mission: research, education and horticulture display. Raven's vision included developing and improving all three. Under his leadership, the Garden's research programs expanded across the globe with special attention in some of the planet's hot spots of biodiversity, such as Madagascar and the Andes mountains in South America. The educational partnership with Washington University continues to turn out new scientists. But perhaps best known to the people of St. Louis, much of the Garden's beautiful horticulture display -- the public garden -- was built during Peter Raven's tenure.

"In terms of botanical research, the Missouri Botanical Garden has always been a powerhouse," said Barbara Schaal, professor of biology at Washington University and a long-time colleague of Raven. "But when I was recruited to Washington University in 1980, I was stunned that it was a public display garden as well."

In fact, one could argue that Peter Raven has made the Missouri Botanical Garden the No. 1 garden in the world, says Arnold Donald, chair of the Garden's board of trustees, "No one would debate we're one of the top three," he said. "While it is a beautiful place to visit, it's also a driving force globally in conservation, sustainability and biodiversity. He's given us an incredible gift."

A scaffold of biology

Raven has shown, better than anyone, how important biodiversity is, Schaal says, not just for its own sake, but for all of humanity. He is constantly pointing out humanity's dependence on the natural world for its very survival.

"To the extent that we're going to have a sustainable future, it's going to be built on a scaffold of biology," said Raven. "We depend completely on it. We get all our food from plants. Two-thirds of the people in the world get all their medicine from plants. Even about a quarter of prescription drugs are originally from plants or still from plants."

To illustrate the importance of protecting the environment, Raven often quotes population statistics. "Over the next 40 years, the world population will grow from its present 7.1 billion to 9.5 billion. Today, over 1 billion people are malnourished by United Nations standards and over 100 million are on the verge of starvation," he said. "That's a very unstable world." Raven understands that more people means an accelerated use of Earth's natural resources and the subsequent loss of species. Those statistics bring home the importance of the Garden's work.

"The Garden is a powerful force around the world gathering information about plants and transforming it into sustainability and advances for people in different countries," said Raven. "I'd like to see it continue to do as much of that as it possibly can."

A great mentor

In addition to his work leading the Garden and championing biodiversity, Raven is a great mentor to students and a tremendous resource, Schaal said. "If a student is working on a group of plants that has a worldwide distribution, Peter can arrange to have collections from all over the world brought to Missouri. Nobody else could do that," Schaal said. "I think Peter knows somebody in every country in the world."

Beyond his leadership at the Garden, Raven has maintained his scientific work, churning out articles and books in both quantity and quality.

"It's remarkable how many articles he's had that are landmark articles in different subfields of our science," said Hoch.

Raven is also the primary author on three best-selling university textbooks, each with multiple editions and translated into foreign languages. "When you think about that cumulatively, hundreds of thousands of students, literally, have received their biological education through Peter Raven," Hoch said.

Despite his intense schedule and workload, Raven always keeps a sense of humor. "He has a joke for every circumstance in life," Montiel said. "You can be ready to discuss something serious, and before you start he tells a joke that goes to the point of what your discussion is going to be. It's a gift," she said.

"He could probably sit and tell jokes for hours," Hoch said. "If you go into a meeting with Peter Raven and you've never met him before, you might be intimidated. But he's very disarming. He tells these jokes and you can't help but relax. I rarely come out of meetings with him without a whole bunch of additional work. But somehow you're in a good mood because he's told jokes. Then you realize, holy smokes, I've got another huge project! But it's hard to complain because he accomplishes so much. If you feel like you've got too much to do, it's nothing compared to what he's doing."

Indeed, Hoch describes working late into the night as a graduate student and running into Raven coming in to the office at 3 or 4 in the morning. "I don't consider myself a workaholic," Raven said. "But some people would." Raven is also known for occasionally dozing off during a student committee meeting or seminar. "He runs on all cylinders a lot of the time," said Hoch, "But when he does slow down, he'll sometimes fall asleep. Then the talk will be over and he'll turn around and ask some brilliant, penetrating question. How do you do that? He must have been listening while he was sleeping! He's quite a fellow to be around," Hoch said.

A trusted adviser

In addition to his work with students and fellow academics, he is also an adviser to world leaders. From the president of the United States to the pope, Raven has advised leaders by serving on committees and writing reports that highlight the health and environmental impacts of policy decisions.

As a member of President Bill Clinton's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology, Raven was instrumental in a publication called "Teaming with Life," about the importance of biodiversity. "He was very important on that report and it had policy implications," said Schaal, a current member of President Barack Obama's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. "He did a tremendous amount of work evaluating scientific advice for the government. It's a huge service to the United States and not widely known."

Raven's influence extends into the private sector. Arnold Donald was a senior executive at Monsanto in the early 1990s, before the company commercialized now widely used plant biotechnology, such as Roundup-Ready soybeans. "We were engaged in a visioning exercise to figure out where we wanted to take the company and what we would stand for," said Donald. "We had several sessions with outside people. I remember Peter being one of the outside personalities that stood out in challenging us, in being provocative with us, to make certain we were asking deeper and deeper questions," Donald said.

The world is a garden

As important as advising presidents is his desire to instill a love of nature in today's children. "It's very important that the Garden keep dealing with educating and encouraging children," Raven said. "The pathway I followed is one that's given me a profound sense of satisfaction all my life. If somebody is tied in to the environment, then everything is exciting," he said.

"I'm so keen to get children interested in nature because it makes their whole lives exciting and worthwhile," Raven continued. "I feel like the way we grow conscientious, satisfied adults is to expose them to nature early. If you can interest them in it, you give them something priceless because they go all their lives enjoying it."

One child sure to be exposed to nature early is Raven's new grandson. On Aug. 5, Raven celebrated the birth of his first grandchild, Noah Cassidy Raven.

Will the little Raven also be a plant collector? "We'll see!" Raven said with a laugh. "I love plants. They excite me very much -- please me very much aesthetically," he said. "And I find the older I get, the more they please me. One of my colleagues has said the earth is now a garden. There are so many of us and we're all gardeners. We're all responsible for it," he said. "Being a gardener means appreciating and enjoying the individual plants and introducing other people to the joy of knowing them."

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis. Visit her website at www.straitscience.com.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.