Theodor L. Steiger's Years in Lincoln

Lincoln -- In the previous post I mentioned the name Theodor L. Steiger, whose communication with Henry Chandler Cowles, the noted botanist and ecologist of the University of Chicago, is in the Chicago archives of the Cowles collection. Steiger spent several productive years in Lincoln, for which he should be better remembered. While he was conducting research on prairies with his mentor, Professor John Ernst Weaver of the University of Nebraska, he was also pastor of a church in Lincoln's South Bottoms, home to a German speaking population of Volgadeutsch immigrants. Steiger's son later made a major contribution to astrophysics.

Steiger did extensive research in 1927 and 1928 on Lincoln's nearby Nine Mile Prairie and its environs, which at that time encompassed about 800 acres. He had emigrated from Switzerland to San Diego, California, in 1910, at age seventeen. He and his wife Bertha, also Swiss, had two children: Mari, born in South Dakota in 1921 when Theodor taught at Redfield College; and Walter, born in 1923 in Colorado. The family came to Lincoln where Steiger was invited to become minister at Ebenezer Congregational Church at 8th and B Streets. He simultaneously sought his doctorate in botany at the University of Nebraska, which he received in 1929.

In 1930, doctorate in hand, Steiger became a public advocate for keeping Lincoln's newly established Pioneers Park as native prairie:

It took nature thousands of years to produce this grassland. It is a living witness to the countless ages which elapsed before the white man began to sink the glistening plough into the ancient sod. Not enough of it is left today to convey to future generations an appreciation of the prairie. Are we going to permit its complete extinction in favor of the dull and unimaginative blue grass sod?

Steiger left Lincoln in 1931 with a fellowship from the National Research Council to study Swiss meadow vegetation at the University of Zürich. He returned to the United States to teach at Sul Ross College at Alpine, Texas, in the Big Bend region, then joined the botany faculty at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. After World War II, he spent two years in Greece working on agriculture projects with the United Nations Relief and Restoration Administration, UNRRA. He returned to the United States in 1947, researched New Hampshire grasslands, and discovered a new orchid, to be named Spiranthes Steigeri Correll. In his retirement, he returned to the ministry with the Unitarian Church. His son Walter, who attended his father's South Bottoms church as a child in Lincoln, studied physics at MIT and at the University of Cincinnati and joined the faculty of the University of Hawaii, where he became known as the grandfather of Hawaiian astronomy for bringing space observatories to Hawaii's tallest mountains.

Rivalries Among the Founders of Ecology

Lincoln -- Nebraska, in particular its state university, can rightfully claim to be the home of the academic discipline of ecology. Elsewhere on this blog I have written about Frederic and Edith Clements and their legacy at the University of Nebraska.

If there is another locale and institution that could make a rival claim it would be the Chicago area and the University of Chicago. It was here that Henry Chandler Cowles made his studies of the Indiana Dunes in 1898 and led a department that produced many of the leading ecologists of the twentieth century.

Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles were contemporaries and collaborated on international botanical excursions. They and their wives participated in the first International Phytogeographic Excursion, which took place in the United Kingdom in 1911. They were co-organizers and leaders of the second IPE when it toured the United States in 1913.

This month I visited the Henry Chandler Cowles collection in the archives of the University of Chicago to look more carefully at the Clements/Cowles relationship, especially to see if there was evidence of a rivalry that may have influenced the development of ecology as a discipline. Evidence in other collections, namely the letters of Edith Clements from the 1911 excursion, makes it clear that the two couples were not on the best of terms. This apparently carried over even beyond the grave.

Henry Cowles actually had a strong Nebraska connection that could have been the basis for a better relationship. He began his teaching career in the 1890s at Gates College in Neligh, Nebraska, before moving on to the University of Chicago. During his career he was well acquainted with Nebraska botanists and ecologists. The Cowles collection contains friendly correspondence from T.L. Steiger (who worked with Clements' protégé John Weaver on the prairies around Lincoln) and Raymond Pool, another Clements student and longtime chairman of the Nebraska botany department.

But Frederic Clements and Henry Cowles were opposites in many ways. Clements was a driven man whose intense work ethic was influenced by hyperthyroidism; Cowles, especially in his prime teaching years, was jolly and led memorable class excursions. One account has Cowles running the aisles of a train in Montana barefoot with a liquor bottle in hand. This would have annoyed Clements, an outspoken teetotaler, to no end. Roscoe Pound once described Frederic Clements as a man with no redeeming vices.

Both scientists wrote poetry. Clements' early poetry was earnest in the style of Robert Browning; Cowles began writing devout Christian verse, based on sermons he attended as a young man, but as an adult he wrote doggerel that delighted Chicago students and faculty. Clements was an avowed atheist, whose own grand theory of nature could itself be called a religion, and saw himself as a nature poet.

Edith Clements was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska. She was also a teaching fellow in the German department. She conducted herself as a scientist on the international excursions and frowned on Elizabeth Cowles' way of forever making small talk among the traveling parties. Edith Clements, in letters now at the Nebraska State Historical Society, called Elizabeth Cowles a "bromine".

The rivalry between the two men shows up in an apologetic 1935 letter to Henry Cowles from Sir Arthur Tansley, the eminent British ecologist. In an earlier Festschrift publication Tansley had called Frederic Clements "the greatest individual creator of the modern science of vegetation" but privately he wrote to Henry Cowles, "I should have said that Clements 'had made a unique and indispensible contribution to the theory of vegetation rather than that he is the 'the greatest individual creator, etc.'" [Box 3, Folder 1]

On Henry Cowles' death in 1939, many letters of condolence were written to Elizabeth, including a touching one from Raymond Pool in Nebraska, but none came from Frederic or Edith Clements. Or at least none is in the collection.

What is noteworthy about the Henry Cowles collection is what is missing. It is a fairly large collection of over twenty linear feet, but it seems not to contain any records of the interactions between the Clementses and the Cowleses. There are good records of other travels, but none from the IPEs of 1911 and 1913, historically the most significant.

Perhaps some of the missing records are at the Library of Congress, which has considerable documentation of the development of the discipline of ecology. But according to daughter Harriet Cowles, Elizabeth took many of Henry's papers after his death and put them on the curb as garbage (at 5722 Blackstone in Hyde Park), thinking no one would have an interest in them. That may not be the whole story. Elizabeth may have been systematic in what was retained and what was destroyed so as to limit future generations' ability to examine conflicts among the founders of ecology. Early correspondence and love letters between Henry and Elizabeth, which were not thrown out, show them to be adept academic in-fighters when it came to Henry's career. Henry writes Elizabeth in 1901 that if his colleague Chamberlain is promoted over him, he "will raise a deuce of a row." [Box 3, Folder 5]

Why is this important? Both Cowles and Clements revolutionized the study of nature with their theories of orderly plant succession, sometimes called "dynamic ecology." Because Clements published much more than Cowles, the theory came to be known as the Clementsian paradigm. When this theory came under attack by Henry Gleason, who argued that nature was far more chaotic than orderly, Cowles largely remained on the sidelines. It could be argued that this was because Gleason had been a student of Cowles at the University of Chicago, but so had Victor Shelford, who collaborated with Clements on extending the Clementsian paradigm to all biology. Or perhaps Cowles wanted to emphasize his own differences with Clements over the direction and details of plant succession, which were significant. But the answer may be that Frederic, Edith, Henry, and Elizabeth just didn't get along.

The battle between Clementsian and Gleasonian views of nature goes on into this century, unfortunately with too little enlightenment from the Henry Chandler Cowles collection.


Nebraska Nutrition

Lincoln -- If I lived here year-round perhaps I'd get used to it: all the overweight people, that is.

Corn fed, indeed. Corn syrup fed, high fructose version, is more like it. I simply don't remember there being such an epidemic of obesity when I was growing up in Nebraska, or even when I lived here a quarter-century ago.

No one seems much to care. Three of us recently stopped at a truckstop restaurant on West O Street in Lincoln. Two "sides" came with each meal. I asked for greens. "We don't have greens," the waitress said. "Nobody orders them." Last month in Omaha we stopped at a diner not far from downtown. Same thing, no greens. At a nearby booth sat two young women who could have been the sisters of those fat twins in the movie Nebraska. They were both pushing 300 pounds. At a nearby table a grandpa and grandma, both wide-bodied, were treating their three young granddaughters, still wispy-thin delights, to lunch. The grandfather ordered them all extra french fries and taught them to dip their fries in a sundae, a green, foamy tower of liquified sugar in which he was indulging himself. "This is the way to eat your fries, yum-yum."

I asked the Omaha waitress how a diner could not have greens. Every diner I ever knew had canned green beans, or peas and carrots, or cole slaw. Those choices almost defined diners. She said I could have a salad, which I ordered. But it had no green in it, only the greying innards of a head of iceberg lettuce with a dressing that was probably thickened and sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

The irony in this is that the University of Nebraska in Lincoln was once the home of one of the nation's great nutritionists, Ruth M. Leverton, who promoted food labeling and recommended dietary allowances (RDAs). More recently, unable to resist the fashion of public-private partnerships, UNL has started to combine its Food Science program with that of ConAgra, a private company that is a leading opponent of food labeling initiatives nationwide. So much for the tradition of Ruth Leverton. The UNL chancellor has said that ConAgra is the "perfect collaborator" for the state university. He may well be right in a way not intended.