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Richard Alden Howard, botany professor and 23-year director of the Arnold Arboretum

Richard Alden Howard, botany professor and director for 23 years of the Arnold Arboretum, died Sept. 18 at his home in Cohasset. He was 86.

Howard, professor of dendrology emeritus, directed the Arboretum from 1954 to 1977, a period that saw the development of public educational programs and the renovation of the physical plant, including the building of a modern greenhouse and laboratories.

A prolific scholar and an intrepid field researcher, Howard is best known for his six-volume work, “Flora of the Lesser Antilles” (1974-89). He published a dozen other books and more than 300 articles.

Many of Howard’s writings were of a practical nature. He wrote several instruction manuals for surviving in wilderness areas aimed at pilots whose planes have been downed. The books came out of research he conducted as director of the Air Force’s Research and Rescue Program during World War II. He was awarded the Legion of Merit for his contribution.

An active and popular lecturer, Howard was invited to speak all over the country. In the Boston area, his lecture “A Botanist in Your Grocery Store” was often requested, and he led a series of dinner lecture classes called “Botany in Boston Restaurants” in which he described the botanical and culinary properties of the vegetables being served to the participants.

“Professor Howard was characterized in his botanical studies by the breadth and depth of his knowledge,” said Philip Barry Tomlinson, the Edward C. Jeffrey Professor of Biology Emeritus. “He was an expert on Caribbean floras, contributed extensively to publications on plant anatomy, lectured enthusiastically on economic botany, studied plants extensively in their natural habitat, and had a broad interest in horticulture, plant systematics, and evolution. In summary, he was the consummate example of the modern botanist.”

“He had an enormous amount of energy and he worked extremely hard,” said Carroll Emory Wood, professor of biology emeritus, who first began working with Howard in 1949. “He was a very dynamic botanist and was widely interested in all aspects of plants. He was also very inventive in making plants interesting to people. His death leaves a big hole.”

Howard became director of the Arboretum at a difficult stage in its history. Since the end of World War II, Harvard had been trying to consolidate its botanical library and herbarium collections in the University Herbaria, a move that was strongly opposed by the visiting committee of the Arboretum. Eventually, the case was decided in the University’s favor by the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Many are convinced that the consolidation could never have gone as smoothly as it did without Howard’s firm leadership.

“We’re all living with the heritage of the good work that Howard did at the Arboretum,” said Robert Cook, the Arboretum’s current director. “Howard was the individual who had to get the job done, and he pulled it off and brought the institution through to a great celebration of its centennial in 1972.”

Howard’s research in plant anatomy led to fundamental studies of the vascular conducting system through which plants move materials from the leaf blade to the stem. This system is useful in the classification of flowering plants, and the basic papers are cited in many textbooks and research works.

In the 1950s and 1960s, he played an active role in helping aluminum companies revegetate strip-mined areas in Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and Hawaii. This work led to effective rehabilitation of mined-out lands and proved that strip-mining for aluminum ore need not permanently disfigure the environment but could, in fact, lead to improvement of the soil if better crops and land use are established after the mining operation is completed.

Born in Stamford, Conn., and raised in Warren, Ohio, Howard received his A.B. from Miami University of Ohio, and his A.M. and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard University. He was assistant curator of the New York Botanical Garden from 1947 to 1948 and returned to that institution as vice president for botanical science from 1989 to 1990 after his retirement from Harvard. He was also professor of botany and chair of the department at the University of Connecticut from 1953 to 1954.

Howard received many honors from professional societies as well as horticultural and scientific organizations, most recently the Allerton Medal of the National Tropical Botanical Garden. He was a member of the Horticultural Club of Boston, the New England Botanical Club, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, the American Horticultural Society, The American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta, the Society of Economic Botanists, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Tropical Botanical Garden, and he was a trustee of the Kampong Garden in Coral Gables, Fla. He was a member of the Botanical Society of America delegation to the People’s Republic of China, one of the first scientific delegations permitted into China after the revolution.

Despite severe health problems in his later years, Howard continued to lecture and write almost until the end of his life, completing his last scientific paper a few weeks before his death.

He is survived by his children Jean Howard Rodriguez, Barbara Howard, Bruce Howard, and Philip Howard, and eight grandchildren.