A New Name for an Old Friend: The Story of the Farnsworth Orchid

Remarks prepared on the occasion of Professor Farnsworth’s 75th Birthday Celebration, March 23, 2005.

James G. Graham, Ph.D.

“In your schooldays, most of you who read this will remember --perhaps with more respect than love -- the lofty staircase on which you were chased about for uncounted hours by conscientious teachers.” Albert Einstein

During my tenure as a graduate student and Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Department of Pharmacognosy at UIC (“the pharm”), under the advisorship of Professor Farnsworth, I had the opportunity to benefit from the application of a unique pedagogical device, which, for lack of a better signifier, I will simply call the “wisdom of the ancients”– being the distilled essence of insights gleaned by the good professor during his own educational experience, matured, and meted out to successive generations of graduate students at strategic moments.

Out of the Farnsworth archive aphorisms, the one that most clearly comes to mind is this: “Graduate education is a steeplechase………..filled with ridiculous obstacles”. Many of you, perhaps, are familiar with the first part of the quote, delivered with aplomb in a thick Boston accent. I cannot name the person being quoted, neither can I recall in what capacity he advised our professor. I myself have witnessed the administration of this particular quote on more than one occasion, typically in the form of a rejoinder to the mundane complaints of the (hypothetically) average graduate student, one that had worked up the nerve to go and complain to “The Boss”. The second part of the quote, by the way, appears to be a personal touch added by the Professor himself, and bears witness to the sympathetic nature of the man, and his insight into the machinations inherent in qualifications established by committee. Verbum sapienti satis est.

From the dispassionate perspective of one who can verify that there is, indeed, life after graduate school, I would like to deconstruct the previous quote: a steeplechase, in this case defined as a horse race over a closed course with obstacles, implies not only the unspecified (ridiculous) obstacle(s), but also a horse (the graduate student), and a rider (the advisor).

Such is the power of enlightened discourse as practiced by our esteemed colleague, friend and mentor; this quote was applied as a rhetorical device so masterfully that it produced both compliance and obedience in the student, who, heedless of the implied reference to a beast of burden, was at the same time rendered insensible either to the sting of the goad or the weight of the rider as he benignly steered the student through the minefields of graduate school.

This is a story about how, we, the collective recipients of the wit and the wisdom (and weight!) of this great educator, remembering the touch of his benign spur during our wild career over, under, around and through an untold number of ridiculous obstacles--how we (perhaps in spite of these memories)--continue to acknowledge our profound debt to the man, and continue to find ways to pay homage to him.

The following abbreviated account provides a case in point:

In the fifth year of my doctoral studies, I found myself with a unique opportunity to honor my academic patron, and by so doing, to increase my chances of reaching a satisfactory conclusion to the pursuit of a Ph.D. Being nothing if not a dutiful graduate student, it was a rare pleasure to find a way to immortalize a man who had already received such a diversity of awards, plaques, medals, honorary professorships and degrees of doctoris honoris causa as to render the prospect of finding additional means of tribute improbable.

In February of 2000, it so happened that my personal graduate steeplechase passed through the Peruvian Amazon. I was conducting an inventory of the plant knowledge- particularly the medical botany- of a band of the Cashinahua indigenous group that had settled along the Curanja River. This trip coincided with the season of heavy rains, and our daily routine of work typically involved plant collection in the morning with return to the village before the afternoon rains began. Afternoons and evenings were spent indoors, preparing herbarium vouchers and conducting interviews.

Farnsworth's orchid

Professor Farnsworth had generously consented to what was my third, and would turn out to be my last, South American expedition to this remote jungle area before I finished my graduate studies. One morning we were out botanizing as usual, having traversed a low, marshy section of primeval rainforest almost entirely enclosed by a large river bend. As we emerged through the dense vegetation on the river’s edge and onto a small beach, dark clouds were rapidly approaching. Having just re-entered the forest on our hasty retreat, I detected a faint, familiar aroma. My olfactory receptors, sensitized by years of proximity to Professor Farnsworth, had recognized the pungent smell of cheap cigars. I did a double take, stopping abruptly in my tracks, and followed my nose.

Have you ever had the experience where you perceive a smell and suddenly remember an event that you'd forgotten for years? Odor-induced memories can be quite intense. I half expected to look behind a log and see Professor Farnsworth sitting there in a pith helmet, chomping on a stogie! What did I find, when I pushed through the undergrowth and looked being a large fallen log? There, protruding proudly from the bark of a rotten tree stump, about a meter off the ground, was a magnificent, stinky orchid in full bloom.

I knew right away that this was a special find. In addition to the distinctive aroma of the plant, the visual cues-- unisexual, dimorphic flowers (almost all other orchids have “perfect” flowers--with both the male and female parts present on the column), and the unusual length of the staminate column, told me that this orchid was probably in the genus Cycnoches.

That year, when we brought our botanical specimens in from the field, the Cycnoches, in particular, generated a bit of excitement. The plant turned out to be an undescribed species; and David E. Bennett, our expatriate orchid man in Lima, and another orchid specialist of note, Dr. Eric Christenson, authored the description of this undescribed species.

Paul H. Allen, in his 1952 revision of the genus, wrote:

The genus Cycnoches has gained a considerable reputation among botanists as being “difficult”, it is considered doubtful if a more perplexing group could be found in nature, yet they have a peculiar charm and fascination that remains forever new.

Given the fact that Professor Farnsworth has, in his own inimitable way, something of a peculiar charm and fascination, as well a perplexing nature - not to mention the characteristic aroma (dare I call it a stench?) of this plant- it seemed almost inconceivable that it be named anything BUT the Farnsworth orchid. Bennett and Christenson agreed to provide encomium - "a composition expository of attendant excellencies"- to Professor Farnsworth by naming the new species in his honor. In due time, this rare orchid took its place in the botanical literature -published in 2001 in Icones Orchidacearum Peruviarum, and named in honor of the person that shared so many of its characteristics.

Thus was established an enduring etymological link between Farnsworth the man, and the Farnsworth orchid- Cycnoches farnsworthianum D. E. Benn.& Christenson. Long may they both live, and many happy returns!