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History of the

Regional Parks Association

Founding Director

Herbert Louis Mason

1896-1994
Professor of Botany, UC Berkeley
Director of the Herbarium, Emeritus

Herbert Mason joined the Berkeley Department of Botany in 1925, and served there continuously until his retirement in 1963, the last twenty-two years as professor of botany and director of the herbarium. He was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, on January 3, 1896, one of a pair of identical twins who were the eighth and ninth children of Thomas and Harriet Mason. His interest in botany was developed as a child through his mother's enthusiasm for gardening and her informal teaching about plant life.

The twins entered Stanford University from high school, but volunteered for World War I, and were stationed at an army hospital at Beaune, France. Returning to Stanford after the war, Herbert received the A. B. in 1921. He obtained an M.A. from Berkeley in 1923, and then taught during 1923-1925 at Mills College, an institution for which he retained a life-long affection. Summers, he worked for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, first assisting in F. E. Clements' altitudinal transplanting program in Colorado (subsequently transferred to California) and later hunting fossils in the John Day formation of Central Oregon with R. W. Chaney.

Mason's initial appointment at Berkeley was that of an associate in W. L. Jepson's Phenogamic Laboratory, where he acted as a back-up for Jepson's instructional duties, in view of Jepson's failing health. In 1931, Mason married Lucile Roush, a fellow Stanford graduate and Berkeley graduate student who was working on coralline algae with W. A. Setchell, and was in charge of elementary laboratories. Both Herbert and Lucile were awarded the Ph.D. degree the following year. His thesis, which dealt with western American Tertiary paleobotany, was administered by a committee comprising W. L. Jepson (chairman), R. W. Chaney, and C. L. Camp. Mason was named instructor and assistant curator in the herbarium in 1933, assistant professor and associate curator in 1934, associate professor and curator in 1938, and professor and director in 1941, the position he held until attaining emeritus status in 1963.

Mason's teaching responsibilities and research interests were closely intertwined and nourished each other. He published a substantial number of papers either alone or in association with Chaney on the Tertiary history of western American coniferous trees, particularly the so-called "closed-cone" pines. He was very knowledgeable concerning living western floras, but his most ambitious taxonomic work was his masterly treatment, in association with Alva Day Grant, of the Polemoniaceae (Phlox Family) in Abrams' Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States.

Although a self-professed taxonomist, Mason was always more interested in the causes underlying plant evolution and distribution, both past and present, than he was in details of classification. His efforts shifted more and more to what he termed "plant geography" to distinguish it from the then mainstream plant ecology, which was for many years dominated by the ideas and overblown terminology of F. E. Clements. Mason stressed the direct relationship of environmental factors to the varied tolerance capacities of the plants comprising a given community, and rejected the almost organismal interpretation of "associations," "climaxes," and other phytosociological abstractions. One of his most productive accomplishments was the isolation of the role of soil minerals in the development and restricted distribution of plants on California's rich serpentine deposits. Jenny, Vlamis, and Walker were inspired to investigate the physiological basis of serpentine tolerance, while Kruckeberg and McMillan explored the genecological basis of plant response to serpentine soils. Mason was a particularly effective critic in the ecological field, where his influence was often considerable, as on the organization and content of Stanley Cain's landmark Foundations of Plant Geography, and in the writings of R. H. Whittaker. In 1949 and 1950, Mason joined A. H. Miller and R. A. Stirton in an expedition to the Magdalena Basin of Colombia, sponsored by the Associates in Tropical Biogeography. The objective was to study periodic phenomena under tropical conditions without marked seasons; we assume that the results with respect to plants were inconclusive. The State Division of Fish and Game commissioned a botanical survey of California wetlands carried out by Mason and his graduate students. It culminated in the production of A Flora of the Marshes of California (1957), doubtless his best-known work.

Throughout his career, but more prominently in his later years, Mason became interested in various theoretical and philosophical issues. As editor of Madrono, Journal of the California Botanical Society, he had his own forum ready at hand. He was strongly influenced by and became a major player in the group of Bay Area biologists and Earth scientists who engaged in the interdisciplinary discussions and activities that led to creation of the still-active biosystematists group and the origin of the field of biosystematics itself. Jean Langenheim, trained as an ecologist, became a close associate during the 1950s and helped him translate his sometimes abstruse ideas into more comprehensible language. His 1957 paper "The concept of the flower and the theory of homology" was a trenchant critique of the then fashionable "telome theory." In the same year, he and Langenheim published their joint, "Language analysis and the concept environment," and in 1961, "Natural selection as an ecological concept." In the 1950s Mason became preoccupied by the relation of set theory to taxonomic organization, and this focus came to dominate his course in Phylogenetic Taxonomy. Although he was a lucid informal lecturer and a favorite speaker before garden clubs and other amateur groups, he was sometimes less successful in transmitting some of his more theoretical ideas. Moreover, he was quick to exhibit impatience with colleagues who failed to either understand his arguments or to appreciate their significance. He obviously enjoyed teaching and his contact with students. We, like many of his students and associates, find that he has strongly influenced our thinking. Peter Raven gives high praise to Mason as a teacher--the best he encountered as an undergraduate at Berkeley--and concludes that "his influence on successive classes of Berkeley students has made a very real impact on the development of the field of systematic and evolutionary botany that will be felt for years to come." Shortly before his retirement, Mason became one of three founders of the Elementary School Science Project, funded by the National Science Foundation and operated out of the Lawrence Hall of Science. He was recalled from retirement to serve as director of this project, which he found richly rewarding, and which has had an important impact on science education in the United States.

Mason was affiliated with a number of professional and conservation organizations during his career, and served as president of the Western Society of Naturalists, the Western Section of the Ecological Society of America, the Regional Parks Association, the California Botanical Society, and the American Society of Plant Taxonomists.

The Masons, famous for their hospitality, were continuously involved with students, colleagues, and long-time friends. Shortly after his retirement, they moved to Bellingham, Washington, to be near their son, David, a professor in Fairhaven College of Western Washington University. Lucile Mason died in 1986.

The sixteenth volume of Madrono is dedicated to Herbert, with an excellent photograph taken by Marion Cave. He appears bright and inquiring, just as we like to remember him.

Lincoln Constance
Robert Ornduff

This biography was adapted from the In Memoriam collection at the University of California Berkeley website: http://www.berkeley.edu/

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