International Association for Lichenology

Chicita F. Culberson

Chicita F. Culberson

Over the last three or four decades, the science of lichenology, or more specifically, the discipline of lichen systematics, has become increasingly identified with the use of secondary chemistry. For much of the same time period, the subject of this biographical sketch, Dr. Chicita F. Culberson, has been the leading lichen chemist, and much of our present knowledge base is a result of her work, or has been made accessible by her work.

Chicita Culberson (née Forman) was born on November 1, 1931 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After high school, Chicita made the crucial decision to attend the University of Cincinnati, where she majored in chemistry. It was here that she eventually met her future husband and collaborator, Bill Culberson, certainly a fortuitous event for lichenology. Chicita graduated with high honors from the University in 1953. Another milestone occurring that summer was her marriage to Bill.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Chicita enrolled in the University of Wisconsin where, in 1951 she obtained a Master’s Degree in chemistry. Her dissertation dealt with the very non-lichenological topic of using radioactive tracers to study the physical and chemical processes involved in electrodeposition. After Wisconsin, there was a one-year hiatus in Chicita’s formal education while she accompanied Bill on his postdoctoral appointment at the Farlow Reference Library and Herbarium in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a chemist, Chicita first became interested in lichens through her association with Bill. Her first real work with lichens occurred while they were at Harvard, where Asahina’s microchemical techniques were applied to the “Parmelia dubia” group. Significantly, it was also during this time that Chicita began the extensive bibliographic indexing work that eventually led to her landmark book, “A Chemical and Botanical Guide to Lichen Products.”

In 1955, Chicita moved to North Carolina with Bill who had accepted a position at Duke University. There, she embarked on a doctoral program in Organic Chemistry where she did research on the synthesis and mechanism of reactions in terpenes related to camphor. Chicita received her Ph.D. degree in 1959, spent a couple of years as a Research Associate in the Chemistry Department, and since 1961 has been either a Senior Research Associate or an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Botany.

In a (still active) research career with so many highpoints and important publications, it is difficult to select out a few for special mention here in this brief synopsis. I believe that most lichenologists would agree, however, that two of Chicita’s relatively early contributions have had a particularly outstanding impact on our own work and on the general advancement of knowledge in the areas of lichen chemistry and lichen chemosystematics. The first of these is her above-mentioned book, “A Chemical and Botanical Guide to Lichen Products” (and the supplements), a book which is packed with information on biosynthetic pathways, information about the different lichen substances, and listings of lichens from which they have been reported.

Even though the most recent supplement came out some time ago now (a new supplement is in progress), these books represent an irreplaceable resource that is still used by many of us on an almost daily basis. The second very influential contribution is the series of papers begun in 1970 in which she explained her standardized techniques for the use of thin-layer chromatography in the identification of secondary lichen products. While the techniques first outlined by Chicita have been elaborated upon and computerized by other workers, the basic procedures used by most of us today remain those first described by her.

In addition to the above contributions, Chicita has published on a wide variety of topics relating to lichen chemistry and chemotaxonomy, and all of her nearly one hundred publications have been of consistently high quality. Special mention must be made of her work on cultured biont chemistry and resynthesis, chemosyndromic variation in lichens, chemical evolution, gene transfer and molecular biology. Chicita has done collaborative work with a large number of lichenologists and has given expert assistance to many more. Her number one collaborator of course is her husband Bill. Together, they have formed a partnership that has reaped great benefits for lichenology. At the risk of stretching a metaphor too far, it might be said that Chicita and Bill Culberson themselves provide an extraordinary example of a lichenological symbiosis. And, just as with lichens their symbiotic relationship provides a total that is more than sum of its parts.

T. L. Esslinger