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Today we celebrate the birthday of Charles Joseph Chamberlain (23 Feb 1863 – 5 Feb 1943), an American botanist who did groundbreaking research into cycads.

A young cycad plant.(© All Rights Reserved)

A young cycad plant.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Before Chamberlain, little was known about these weird plants that look like something of a cross between tree ferns and plants. Chamberlain’s unique contribution was to apply techniques from zoology – microscopic studies of cells and plant tissue in particular – to the study of plants. He was not only a laboratory scientist, however – between 1904 and 1922 he undertook several studies into wilderness areas in Mexico, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa and Cuba  to study the cycad in its natural surroundings. He collected a wide variety of specimens, which allowed him to investigate the generic stages of a cycad’s development.

In 1919 he published ‘The Living Cycads’, a comprehensive summary of his research on the taxonomy, morphology and reproductive biology of cycads, which is still a key reference work today.

By the time of his death, Chamberlain was close to finishing a monograph on the complete morphology and phylogeny of the cycad family, which would have been a most impressive culmination of his seminal work in the area. Sadly, because of his death, this monograph was never published.

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