International Association for Lichenology

William Louis Culberson

William Louis Culberson

When one thinks of modern, innovative work being done on the systematics and evolutionary biology of lichens, it is Dr. William Louis Culberson’s name that immediately comes to mind. For almost four decades now, he has been at the forefront of the use of lichen chemistry to study and identify not just the results but also the processes of evolution in lichens.

Bill was born April 5, 1929 in Indianapolis, Indiana, but his family moved when he was a young boy to Cincinnati, Ohio, where his father was a postal worker and his mother a school teacher. He attended school in Cincinnati, and when it came time for college he enrolled at the University of Cincinnati. Bill had been interested in plants from a young age, worked in a greenhouse as a youth, and when the time came he selected Botany as a college major. It was at the University of Cincinnati that he was introduced to cryptogams by the bryologist Margaret Fulford, and he wrote his first scientific paper, a floristic account of some lichens of eastern Kentucky, while still an undergraduate. It was also in Cincinnati that Bill met his future wife and collaborator, Chicita Forman.

By the time he graduated (with High Honors and as a Phi Beta Kappa) in 1951, Bill had become fluent enough in French that he decided to go to the Universite de Paris to work on the equivalent of a Master’s degree. Supported by a Fulbright Scholarship, he studied in the Laboratoire de Cryptogamie, where he wrote a dissertation on the systematics and phytogeography of Enterographa crassa. Returning to the States in 1952, Bill enrolled on a Ph.D. program in Botany at the University of Wisconsin, where he worked in a lichen ecology project under the direction of John Thomson. The research project, a study of the structure of corticolous lichen and bryophyte communities in the upland forests of northern Wisconsin, was a companion project to a similar one carried out in southern Wisconsin by Mason Hale, whose tenure as a graduate student, also with John Thomson, partially overlapped with that of Bill. It took Bill only two years to complete his doctoral program, and in 1954 he went as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow to work with Mackenzie Lamb at the Farlow Reference Library and Herbarium of Harvard University. He and Chicita, having married the previous year, spent one year at the Farlow, working primarily on the Parmelia dubia group.

In 1955, Bill was hired as an Instructor by Duke University, primarily to organize and teach in their general botany classes. At the time, the lichen herbarium at Duke was almost nonexistent, and it has since been built into a major botanical resource through extensive travel and collecting by Bill and Chicita, by exchange with other herbaria, and by the purchase of several European collections (the Havaas herbarium from Norway and part of the Harmand herbarium from France).

Among the highlights in his professional career during his tenure at Duke are the following. He has been a member of the editorial boards of the journals Brittonia (1972–74), Madrono (1972–76) American Journal of Botany (1977–79), Cryptogamie, Bryologie et Lichenologie (1972–present), and Cryptogamic Botany (1989 – present). He served as Editor-in-Chief of The Bryologist (1962–1970), Brittonia (1975), and Systematic Botany (1976–77), and in fact Bill was largely responsible for the founding and start-up of the latter highly respected journal. He has served as President of the American Bryological and Lichenological Society of America (1987–89), and has just completed a year as the President of the Botanical Society of America, a distinguished post rarely achieved by a cryptogamic botanist, especially a systematist. As one would expect of such an accomplished scientist, he has climbed steadily through the academic ranks, and today Bill occupies the prestigious Hugo L. Blomquist Professorship in Botany at Duke University.

Bill is an innovative and productive researcher with more than a hundred quality papers to his credit, and this does not count the Recent Literature on Lichens bibliographic lists from The Bryologist, which he originated and compiled for more than twenty-five years (to a total of 100 lists). As compilations, this latter series of publications might not be regarded with the same status as his many original research papers, but from the viewpoint of service to the lichenological community, they do deserve special mention here.

As with Chicita, Bill’s contributions have always been of such consistently high quality, often on the cutting edge of our science, that selecting out a few for special mention is difficult. If measured by their direct usefulness to and impact upon other lichenologists, the Recent Literature series mentioned above and the four checklists of North American lichens he wrote with Mason Hale would certainly merit special mention. Also among his most significant early works is the Cetrelia and Platismatia monograph, completed with Chicita, which was one of the first comprehensive revisions to make use of detailed chemical data to support both specific and generic level taxonomies. He has spent a significant part of his career working to clarify the biological and evolutionary significance of chemical variation in lichens, and his best known works are probably of this type. Among especially important papers in this vein are those dealing with the Ramalina siliquosa group, the Parmelia perforata group, the Cladonia chlorophaea group, and Flavoparmelia caperala-F. baltimorensis.

T. L. Esslinger