A pioneering researcher in plant physiology, Dr. Thimann was best known for describing the functions of hormones in the control and development of plants. He identified the growth hormone known as auxin and characterized its chemical structure, a discovery of critical importance to the agriculture and horticulture industries. He was also highly regarded for his research on the biosynthesis of pigments responsible for the colors of flowers and fruits; the action of various zones of the light spectrum on photosynthesis; and, later in life, the factors controlling the mechanism of the aging of leaves.
In 1982 Dr. Thimann won the Balzan Prize, an honor awarded yearly in areas not covered by the Nobel Prizes. The prize committee wrote that he was, "an inspiring leader of more than a generation of botanists and is regarded as the doyen of a line of research that has revolutionized plant physiology." Other honors included membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society and international scientific societies in many countries. He held honorary degrees from Harvard, Brown, the University of Basel in Switzerland, and the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France.
He wrote or co-authored about 300 research papers and several books including two that are considered landmarks in the development of modern botany: the 1937 Phytohormones, (with F.W. Went), and The Life of Bacteria, 1955.
Dr. Thimann, born and educated in England, came to the U.S. in 1930 as an instructor in bacteriology and biochemistry at California Institute of Technology. He joined Harvard in 1935 and taught there for 30 years. He was a technical consultant to the U.S. Navy during World War II, working with the Navy's operations research group in Washington, D.C., London and Pearl Harbor.
In 1965, he became professor of biology at the University of California at Santa Cruz and the first provost of Crown College, the third of UCSC's eight academic colleges. Upon his retirement as provost in 1972 UCSC renamed its first biological sciences research facility for him; he remained active in research and university affairs there for many years.
In 1989, Dr. Thimann moved to Haverford to be near his three daughters. He set up a collaboration with his oldest daughter, Dr. Vivianne T. Nachmias, who is professor of cell biology at Penn's School of Medicine. As a visiting scientist, he continued to work and publish on the relation of actin and plant cell elongation for another five years. At the Quadrangle where he lived, he gave informal lectures to the retirees on how leaves change color in the fall and on Japanese gardens, while tending his own gardens outside and in the greenhouse, planting many bulbs each fall and growing delphiniums, roses and lilies among other plants.
Dr. Thimann is survived by his daughters, Dr. Nachmias of Penn; Dr. Karen T. Romer, a former VPUL staff member who is now associate dean at Brown University; and the Providence artist Linda Dewing; and by six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Volume 43 Number 18
January 21, 1997
Return to Almanac's homepage.
Return to index for this issue.