Dr. Carl Leslie Withner Jr. renowned “Orchid Legend”, botanist, teacher, friend, world citizen and loving husband and father has left the greenhouse for the last time. The book of his encyclopedic knowledge is closed but he surely left a dent in the fabric of the world having touched many lives in his passage. He died February 8 from natural causes after several years of declining health; his family was able to be at his bedside in his final hours at Whatcom Hospice House. He was 93. Carl once told his doctor he wished to live to be 100, and though he wasn’t granted that span, he surely made the most of his time given.
He was born March 3, 1918 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Carl L. Withner and Martha (Meyers) W. and showed a precocious interest in plants, nature, and collecting. He astonished his eighth grade teachers with a 90 species leaf collection, complete with names and descriptions, and collected his first orchids as a boy scout while in his teens. Scouting apparently impressed him for a lifetime with the importance of service to his community and he attained the level of Eagle Scout. He “always liked participating in things and helping out”. Carl joined the Indiana Nature Study Club while in high school, often preferring the company of those older than himself. For high school graduation he requested White’s book “American Orchid Culture”.
In college at the U. of Illinois at Champaign, Carl’s orchid interest was abetted by botany professor Harry J. Fuller and he graduated with honors in 1941 with majors in botany and German and minors in zoology and biochemistry. He was also married that June 4 to the love of his life Patricia d’Almeida Maxwell and drafted into the Army, saying “It was a very busy month”. He received an MA from Yale in botany in 1943, and then during 1943-1946 served in the US Army in Chemical Warfare and Medical Corp training for 2 years at Yale medical school on an accelerated schedule. When the war ended his quit the military and medicine and settled into what was to be his life-long career– botany—particularly of orchids, completing a PHD in 1948. His first orchid paper published in the American Orchid Society (AOS) Bulletin in 1942 dealt with orchid seed germination and another in 1943 with ovule culture (green-podding)—the first such for any kind of plant. This technique was then widely adopted to save time in the germination of seed, being particularly successful as a means to get Vanilla (an orchid) seed to germinate on a commercial scale.
Carl began work at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of N.Y. in 1948 and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1979 having taught primarily botany and biology courses as well as chairing the Botany Department for a time. He also curated the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and N.Y. Botanic Gardens’ orchid collections from 1948-75 and 75-79 respectively and taught horticultural and orchid growing classes in the community. He quickly immersed himself in orchid activities after moving to Brooklyn, becoming a charter member of all the local societies and a probationary orchid judge in 1958. The 50’s and 60’s were the golden years for orchidists in the greater N.Y. area. Carl was one of only a handful of scientists involved in these groups, bringing a different perspective and knowledge base which he was only too happy to share. He also had the opportunity to be on sabbatical for a year at Stanford University and to teach botany one summer at Dachau University in what is now Bangladesh.
In 1961 Carl began the first of many trips to the tropics to study orchids, aided in 1962 by a Guggenheim Fellowship to study and write about the Cattleyas. He and Pat visited all the countries of S. America as well as many in other parts of the world, repeated times, participating in World Orchid Congresses, judging, and lecturing. His final trip was to the AOS show in Arlington, Texas in 2007, to be recognized along with others as an “orchid legend”.
After his retirement in 1979 he and Pat moved to Bellingham, Washington and he continued to write, lecture and judge and be active in the Vancouver Orchid Society. Carl has written, co-authored or edited 10 books and some 180 articles, mostly on orchids. His main opus is “The Cattleyas and their Relatives” in VI parts. He also made, named and registered 35 orchid hybrids, and described 11 species. He has several hybrids named in his honor. In June of 1990 he was proud to be awarded the Gold Medal of Achievement of the AOS for distinguished achievement in science and education, also becoming an honorary life member of AOS. In 1996 he received a Medal of Meritorious Achievement from the Orchid Digest and a 30 year honor by the German Orchid Society in 1998. Carl was most proud of his seminal work on green-podding in orchids and of his contributions to teaching – having at least 27 former students go on to PhDs and several to MA’s, mostly in botany or plant physiology. Always a teacher at heart his wife Pat said “Don’t ask him a question – he’ll give you a lecture”.
His interests besides orchids were many and varied. He said “I always loved to know the details of things”, leading he supposed to his compulsion to collect, and to his “collection of collections”. Interests included nature study (particularly bird-watching), gardening, garden design, antique pattern glass goblets, glass canes, paisley shawls, other textiles (quilts, Guatemalan fabrics, batiks) Japanese and Chinese scrolls, oriental art, genealogy (more travel), food (bread-making and food preservation, world cuisines, cooking), stamps and coins, reading, public television, current events, history, foreign languages (German, Spanish, Latin, French) and the arts. He was truly a Renaissance man bringing an enormous energy, keen intelligence and curiosity obout the world. His life could be characterized by a tremendous joie de vivre. He is remembered by friends as being charming, gracious, intelligent, witty, insightful, and generous of information, a mentor, a scientist and a great friend. He was known to be always late to meetings, be the absent-minded professor and to walk to the beat of his own drummer. He was thankful to his wife Pat for being his editor and proofreader; agent and promoter; patient traveling companion, and best friend, allowing him to accomplish as much as he did; and while he collected orchids, she collected orchid people, helping to keep in touch with many far-flung contacts. They would keep track of which of them had written the most letters in a year, each getting into the 300-400 count range.
He is survived by Pat W. his wife of 70 years, son Dennis and daughter-in-law Karen W. of Blaine, WA daughter Rika W. of Bellingham, WA and daughter Holly W. with son-in-law Gerry Johnson of Anchorage, Alaska, granddaughters Jenna J. and Tawnya Eelkema and grandson Todd Tapley; great-grandkids Ellyat, Peter and Gillian. Also surviving are sister-in-law Marilyn Maxwell, nieces and nephews Carla, Andie, John, Stacy, Barry, Marcia and Megan. He was predeceased by his parents and his brother John T. Withner; also by sister-in-law Jean Ogilsby and brother-in-law Robert Maxwell.
The family wishes to thank the staff of Whatcom Hospice House, Spring Creek, The Courtyard, and Stafholt Good Samaritan Center for his loving care in recent years. No services are planned per his request. Memorial donations may be sent to any of the above or to the Nature Conservancy, Whatcom Museum, or an organization of your choosing. A research or scholarship fund is also planned through AOS. Please share condolences and Carl stories at whatcomcremationandfuneral.com and to Pat Withner by mail at c/o Dennis Withner, 8720 Giles Rd., Blaine, WA. 98230.
As Carl would often say in parting “Pax vobiscum” – peace be with you. He will be greatly missed and his memory cherished.