Peter Raven: sprinting into the sunset

By Thomas Hellauer

DES MOINES, Iowa – “Excuse me,” Peter Raven says as he turns his chair around to face me, “I broke my neck in a hang-gliding accident last year and can no longer turn it.”

After a short pause, he adds: “I’m messing with you. I slipped down the stairs. That’s just a better story.”

With Raven’s life and experiences, a hang-gliding accident is almost believable. Even in retirement, he finds little time to rest.

In 2011, he stepped down from his role as president of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis on the 40th anniversary of his hiring, which coincided with his 75th birthday. Still, Raven is president emeritus of the garden so he can continue outreach and fundraising.

Nowadays, he uses his newfound time to attend events such as the World Food Prize, where he’s been meeting with fellow members of the Borlaug Training Foundation.

The foundation focuses on teaching innovative and sustainable techniques to agricultural scientists, particularly in developing countries, where such a scientific base is lacking. Raven’s goal is to build the scientific capacity of developing countries.

This is a longtime interest for Raven, whose work has taken him to many of the same locations he now tries to develop with the foundation.

Throughout his life, Raven has been involved in science in some way. In an interview Thursday at the Marriott Downtown Hotel, he said his passion for science comes from his early life, “When I was a little punk, not the big punk you see today, with measles, you spend the first week in bed. You still can’t go back to school because you are contagious, so I spent the second week running around the backyard chasing butterflies and bugs.”

Peter Raven poses with the World Food Prize poster in the background at the Downtown Marriott Hotel. Raven was at the prize as part of the Borlaug Training Foundation.

Peter Raven poses with the World Food Prize banner in the background at the Marriott Downtown Hotel. Raven was at the prize as part of the Borlaug Training Foundation. (Photo by Thomas Hellauer)

Raven would go on to join the California Academy of Sciences at the age of eight, and would remain involved until he graduated high school. He credited John Thomas Howell, then head of the Botany Department, with inspiring his interest in plant sciences.

Still, Raven said, “I never thought that I could make a profession out of this. Even as a junior in college when I decided to major in botany, it was out of interest not career motivations.”

Raven received scholarships to attend graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley, and began teaching at Stanford University shortly after he graduated.

In 1968, Raven got married. He had his first two children and then tragedy struck. His wife died and he was suddenly a single father. Unsure of how to manage this, he and his kids took a sabbatical to New Zealand from 1969 to 1970.

When he returned, Raven said, “I wanted a change of scenery.”

Raven’s first experience with the Missouri Botanical Garden came in 1961, when he visited. Additionally, colleagues were understudies of the Shaw School of Botany, named after the creator of the garden, Henry Shaw.

In his first decade as president of the garden, Raven, “kept active in the scientific community. I published a good number of papers still and was very involved.” Then he began focusing on the garden more. He built many new attractions and increased turnout significantly.

Despite spending less time researching, Raven traveled the globe, helping plant scientists worldwide in conservation, classification and other efforts. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the non-Chinese co-chairman of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and foreign fellow of Britain’s Royal Society. He won the U.S. National Medal of Science in 2001.

Those are just a few of the accolades in a long list that spans decades. More important than those, though, are his children. After the death of his first wife, Raven remarried in the late ’70’s and had two more kids. Although none his four children are in a similar field.

“Love and passion for the natural world does not have to be a profession,” he said. “It can add depth and value to your life regardless of if you are being paid to do so.”

These days, Raven is busy working on his biography and collaborating with Indian scientists in taxonomy and other fields. On top of that, Raven focuses on bolstering the next generations of scientists.

“I did not get here on my own and want to make sure the next botanists, biologists or you name it, can have the same opportunities I did,” he said.

Raven has established several scholarships and been involved in the acquisition or development of locations such as the Butterfly House in St. Louis.

The Butterfly House, he said, “is a great way for kids to see plants and animals interacting. It’s these little happenings that spark an interest that put me on this path.

“Hopefully some will follow.”

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