Field of Science

The botanical world just got a bit less colorful - Hugh Iltis RIP

Hugh Iltis was one of our most colorful botanical colleagues. He was a professor at the U. Wisconsin; died about a month ago, but TPP just learned of it.  Here's the obit and some pictures; he was 91.  There are more stories about Hugh Iltis circulating in the field of botany than just about any other single person. TPP watched him challenge a colleague about one of his favorite topics, the origin of maize, by throwing an ear of field corn at him from across an auditorium and having the kernels shatter from the impact on with the wall behind.  Indeed, there was very little that interested Hugh that he was not passionate about especially the relationship between people and plants, and their conservation.  
His 1976 New Year's card is an drawing of the flowering head of perennial teosinte, a wild grass from southern Mexico that Hugh discovered. This shows five female flowers, in two rows, and the long fuzzy stigmas of the 3 flowers in one row form the looping design.  
Yes, perennial maize, and it will cross with cultivated maize, a genetic treasure trove for breeders.  For a long time botanists were puzzled about how this kind of structure flowering head, could give rise to the huge, multi-rowed "ear" of modern maize (corn here in the USA). Hugh's major contribution to this  story was to realize that the "ear" of modern maize had the structure, the organization, of the tassel of teosinte, and was a feminized inflorescence; a whole lecture could follow.  
Hugh on a rampage was a force of nature. At a big public lecture at our university, Hugh went on a 30 min verbal rampage about the evil corporations, primarily EXXON, lacking any ecological ethics, and then got back on track, lecturing for another 50 mins, and young women in the row in front of us, assigned to attend and who had no interest in botany, corn, or conservation, had tears running down their cheeks by the end.  Indeed that was Hugh. Love him or hate him, he was amazing and will be missed.  

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