The Life and Times of Erik Leonard Ekman (1883-1931)
This post doubles as both an educational exploration of a fairly amazing botanist and plant collector, Erik Leonard Ekman, as well as an attempt to draw some attention to the great work being done at GPI partner Natural History Museum, London (BM) on the biographies of plant collectors. The great team from the Natural History Museum, London (I have written about them before). So, when you stumble across a plant collector biography on JSTOR Plant Science, you know where they came from. In fact, what follows is verbatim from this particular plant collector biography. Except for the little bizarre asides, which are completely mine. So on to Mr. Erik Leonard Ekman (1883-1931).
The Life and Times of Erik Leonard Ekman
Erik Leonard Ekman was born in Stockholm, but his interest in plant collecting developed at school in Jönköping in central Sweden, where economic difficulties had forced his family to move when he was 11 years old. In 1907, after graduating from Lund University (a Global Plants Initiative (GPI) partner!) with a bachelor’s degree in botany, he was given free passage on a Swedish ship bound for Argentina. He spent three months collecting Poaceae and Asteraceae in the area around the Swedish colony in Misiones (there was a Swedish colongy in Argentina?), and as a result was offered the position of herbarium assistant at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm (also a GPI partner).
In 1914 he was awarded a doctorate from Lund University and successfully applied for a fellowship to collect in Brazil. Before he could sail, the Swedish Academy made him change his plans. His application had been seen by Ignatius Urban of the Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem (you guessed it, a GPI partner), an expert on the flora of the Antilles, who had persuaded them that his efforts would be more profitably used collecting in Hispaniola. Ekman accepted the assignment only after the Academy threatened to withdraw the fellowship completely. With characteristic obstinacy and independence, he made an unscheduled stopover in Havana and once there used the news of political unrest in Haiti as an excuse to remain in Cuba and continue his study of Vernonia.
After two years of delay, during which time his knowledge and interest in the Cuban flora had greatly expanded, he was again ordered to Hispaniola. When he refused to leave, the Academy cut off his funds. Ekman retaliated by withholding his collections. Their battle ended when the Academy agreed to provide him with more money for his original mission with the provision that he collect in Hispaniola en route to Brazil. Ekman began collecting in Haiti in 1917 but after only three months in the field an attack of malaria forced him to return to Cuba. With no promise of further funding, he worked on a sugar plantation until he had saved enough money to continue plant collecting in the Cuban countryside. Then in 1924, under pressure from the Academy, he finally agreed to return to Hispaniola. After four years of intensive field work in Haiti, he traveled eastward to spend the remainder of his life collecting in the Dominican Republic.
At the time of his death, from a combined attack of malaria, black water fever, and pneumonia, he was on the point of sailing for Venezuela. By an odd coincidence, he died only a week after Urban, with whom he shared authorship of many of the new species he discovered. During 17 years of continuous collecting, he amassed nearly 36,000 numbers, 19,000 from Cuba and over 16,000 from Hispaniola. Of these, more than 2,000 were new species, even though the floras of both islands were presumed to have been exhausted by previous botanical collectors. At least six new genera bear his name.
Ekman also collected zoological specimens, and has several birds and snails named after him. His publications on the West Indies were few because he intended to write later, but they include several papers on the plant geography of the islands, especially Hispaniola, besides his monograph on tropical American Vernonieae. He is commemorated in street names in Santiago and Santo Domingo, a special department in the Botanical Garden in Cuba, and a Swedish foundation that promotes scientific and cultural exchange between Sweden and the Caribbean countries. In 1950 the American Society of Plant Taxonomists collected funds for the erection of a statue and plaque near the unmarked grave where he was buried in Santiago.
A fairly amazing individual and some great work by the Natural History Museum, London. To see the thousands upon thousands of specimens he collected in JSTOR Plant Science, click here.
- Brummitt, R.K. & Powell, C.E., Authors Pl. Names (1992): 184;
- Holmgren, P., Holmgren, N.H. & Barnett, L.C., Index Herb., ed. 8 (1990): 198;
- Knobloch, I.W., Phytologia Mem. 6 (1983): 24;
- Lanjouw, J. & Stafleu, F.A., Index Herb. Coll. A-D (1954): 173;
- Lanjouw, J. & Stafleu, F.A., Index Herb. Coll. E-H (1957): 180, 188;
- Dusén, Per Karl Hjalmar (1855-1926) (co-collector)
- Eyerdam, Walter Jacob (1892-1974) (co-collector)
- León, Hermano (1871-1955) (synonym)
- Urban, Ignatz (1848-1931) (specimens to)