LeRoy Abrams of Stanford (1873–1956)

By Albert Wilson

Delivering flowers in San Francisco when I was sixteen made me eager to learn their names. It was this humble interest that impelled me toward botany and at last in 1923 thrust me into Stanford. There I found myself turning a sharp corner. Professor Burlingame in the hour meeting impressively and confidently charted the long botanist’s journey. I took off with enthusiasm and was soon learning more and more names—not of flowers but of the morphology of plants in general.

There was some talk among the students about Dr. Abrams who was to return for the spring quarter. He was spoken of as an encyclopedia of Western natives, and as extraordinarily quiet, systematic and persistent. I was warned to expect nothing in his course but hard digging and memory work. He carried out this forecast precisely. But I remember something unexpected which I fondly believe has influenced my subsequent career: suddenly, in the laboratory the professor stopped at my table, put down on it one of my exercises, pierced me with a look, and in clear tones audible all over the room announced a principle—“NONE OF THIS SLOPPY WORK!”

Dr. Abrams, with religious intensity was determined to know, to describe, and to classify. He never ornamented his instruction. He was never frivolous or witty in the usual sense. He dealt with literal, tangible facts, and I suppose he was one of the most dedicated realists in the whole university. To the young student who had never even heard of this kind of discipline, his demands were painful. But he attracted and held those who meant business; for in his almost colorless manner he gained their respect, aroused their ambition, and inspired them to more subtle and accurate memory.

That was a golden year for me. It was also, of course in a very different sense, a golden year for Dr. Abrams; for it was in 1923 that the first volume of his Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States was printed. He was then at the mid-point of his career. He had indeed given himself a job; he had in 1916 persuaded President Wilbur and the Board of Trustees to support it. Now it was going ahead at full speed. The second and third volumes and a reprint of the first came our before his death. The fourth, which includes the populous Compositae and an overall index, is being readied by past associates.

These books are a stream of knowledge, much from Dr. Abrams himself, but in part from experts of his choosing. As a beginner I bought that first volume painfully, for it was the most costly book I had ever had to get, and later, I even had to sell it for bread and butter. But I got it again in the second printing. It rewarded me richly and continuously with its profusion of drawings which bring every word description into vivid life. Merely naming planes has never seemed important.

Although Dr. Abrams was utterly faithful in his teaching, these books and what they stood for were his main interest. In the first volume he says: “The great coniferous forests of the Northwest and the mountains of California are the most prominent floral feature. Nowhere are there more extensive forests, more majestic trees, or greater variety of cone-bearing species. In the foothills and coastal valleys of California chaparral and oaks replace the conifers, the open park-like groves of the latter contributing much to the charm of the region. Finally, forming a striking contrast to the forests, are the bunchgrass plains of eastern Washington and Oregon, the sage-brush tracts of southeastern Oregon and adjacent California, and the weird cacti and yuccas of the southern California deserts.”

He had a cabin which he happily told us was under the aromatic juniper up at Fallen Leaf Lake near Tahoe; and a stone’s throw away a little laboratory. Botanists from everywhere dropped in and joined him in his keen-eyed rambles. Among these men was his friend and admirer, Dr. Willis Linn Jepson, botanist of the University of California who was working on the same specialty: the systematic botany of California. Those mountains with their Canadian zone plants gave him a quiet and enduring delight.

In mid-winter he took us on an excursion to the Yosemite. Professor James McMurphy was along. It was strictly business; we were to learn in the field the conifers which we had been studying at Stanford. We were also to become outdoor observers, and were to know not only the individuals but also the societies of plants and their habitations. It was my first mountain excursion; it impressed me as nothing had before with the utter difference between observation and just looking—between the special and the general interest. Dr. Abrams walked us up to a noble Western yellow pine, which we hailed with shouts of Pinus ponderosa. It was seven feet through, and our mentor pointed out the “bark 7 to 10 centimeters thick separated into large, russet-red plates, several inches across and covered with small concave scales.” In the floor of the valley we stopped at everything. Dr. Abrams was seeing every tree, with its special needles and cones, as an extraordinarily clear pen-and-ink illustration in his book. We were intent on taking it all in with our own notes and sketches. Gillespie, a penetrating student who, it is sad to think had only five more years of life, exclaimed, “My wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able just to look at the trunks of these trees and know what they are!”

In the afternoon we hiked up the Glacier Point road, studying the transitions through the Sierran and Canadian Life-Zones. By 4:30 we found it already getting dark and figured we better stop at the hotel at the top and come down in the morning. But when we got there deep snow was drifted against the walls, everything was locked, and the windows were boarded up.

Dr. Abrams stood in the background and said nothing. Professor McMurphy emitted a loud laugh. One of the boys, from a family of means yet showing a dubious talent for second-story work, instantly found a way in, switched on a light and opened the storeroom. Others set logs aburning in the fireplace, rustled up mattresses and blankets to lay on the floor, and rice and ham for dinner. The Chinese students, Pei and Tuan, did the cooking, and we feasted and slept in comfort. Dr. Abrams ate very sparingly; he was much concerned over our banditry but unable to see any way out of it. The next morning when we got down to the valley, he made tracks directly for the headquarters office to confess and pay. But some bears had already got even with us by ransacking one of our cars for steaks, eggs and cereal.

Of course this excursion put us on a new footing with these famed teachers of ours, and it long gave us topics for memory and conversation. We were, moreover, broken in to free informal discussions outside the classroom in what was called Botany Teas. And in the course of time, if we had acquired merit by avoiding all sloppy work, we found ourselves up at Dr. Abrams’ house at a seminar.

This house he had built on a campus hill with a wide overlook of the Santa Clara Valley. His garden showed that he practised his botany at home. With all his wisdom he knew just what to do with his hot dry hill. He made a garden that fitted the climate: the only unnatural feature was enough water to maintain a spot of green lawn and a little pool. The house sat on a crest curtained by trees; and on the steep eastern slope were mass plantings of toyon, ceanothus, Oregon grape, fremontia, Matilija poppy, California cherry, red bud, Monterey pine, tassel bush, currant, and mahogany-trunked, blue-foliaged Guadalupe Island cypress, and the Monterey cypress. In the shade were woodwardias and maidenhair ferns, and Dr. Abrams put in little things too—dogs-tooth violets, brodias, Mariposa lilies, California poppies, godetias, California iris, lupines and a few succulents. He had nothing of that widespread notion of forcing into California the rain forest flora and then performing feats of engineering to keep them alive all through the summer.

The house had a living room made long with a great window in the end to accent the mighty sweep out across the valley. At the sill was a bench and on both sides were bookshelves. After a while I got to looking at the books. They were a sparkling lot, with much Californiana outside the botany; and I often borrowed them, read them and talked them over with Dr. and Mrs. Abrams, even long after my graduation. My friends seemed to gain as much pleasure in lending as I did in receiving them.

For a while I concentrated on plant pathology with Professor McMurphy and saw little of Dr. Abrams in relation to my work. For his part he had moved his laboratory half a mile away to the herbarium, of which he was the director. It was more than just the Dudley Herbarium, for Dr. Abrams was the Director of the Natural History Museum. The period when he was the director, Stanford added to its arboretum valuable specimens of Sequoia gigantea ‘penduda’, a horticultural form of our famed Sierran sequoia; specimens of Abies venusta, the Santa Lucia fir, and two cycads all of which had been donated to the university. On the wall just outside his office hung a famed map of the arborerum showing completed sections and proposed improvements—all to the scheme of plant classification. Dr. Abrams assisted by Gardner Dailey, a former student, had prepared this map. The work was supported by Dr. Abrams’ booklet, published in 1913: “The Gymnosperms Growing On the Grounds of Leland Stanford Jr. University.” On its pages were located living specimens of two of the orders of the Gymnosperms, the Ginkgoales and Coniferales, and contained several pages of photographs. Abrams gives credit to Professor Dudley who began the work in 1909, and who it was, incidentally, who took Dr. Abrams into the field of botany.

It was some years later when I returned as a graduate that I was to work with him shoulder to shoulder for a whole school year—again on the old subject of classification. There was a bit more sparkle in him when you got that close. It was depression time when I was through, and he solemnly asked me, “What are you going to do now, Albert?” “Who? Me?” I answered, “O! I’m going to set the world on fire.” “Well,” he replied slowly, “that’s a big order my boy. If you need any help let me provide the match.”

As the seasons rolled around I would go to his hill, and find him in overalls planting and transplanting with the greatest satisfaction. Sometimes I brought him good new natives. Once I came up proudly with David Fairchild’s The World Was My Garden, saying, “Why it’s a wonderful book—it tells about everybody—but me.” “Well, maybe you’re not old enough to get in yet; but I’m interested in the ones that are old enough and still didn’t get in!” Another time I came up proudly with my copy of the new printing of Volume 1 of his own book. As he autographed it I related the fate of my first copy. “That,” he said, “was a merit in the book which I never planned for.” I can still see his beaming smile at that one and hear his chuckles.

Dr. Abrams had a deep feeling, I believe, for young people. Two of his students, John Gillespie and Gilbert Benson who showed unusual gifts, died on their way to the doctorate. His daughter, an only child, died not long after.

For ten years after he retired, I kept seeing Dr. Abrams busy at his desk in the Herbarium, hammering away at his Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States. At last the time came when I found his desk whistle-clean and no sign of him. They said, “He doesn’t come down here any more.”

I saw him at his house. His occupation was gone. He sat and dreamed of his book and of his life. There came a time when he dreamed that the fourth volume was already published. But he always smiled cheerily. I do not think he ever accepted defeat.

From Wilson, Albert, 1903– Papers, ca. 1910–1995. Special Collections & University Archives M1397.
Published in Journal of the California Horticultural Society, XVII (October), 1956.

Related: Portraits of botanists and plant collectors: collection from Stanford University’s Dudley Herbarium, circa 1900–1996.