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WESTWOOD : Memorial Service to Honor Pioneering Botanist Mildred Mathias

March 16, 1995|LOUISE YARNALL

The late Mildred Mathias, a pioneering female botanist who led expeditions to the Amazon well into her 80s, will be honored Saturday in a memorial service at UCLA.

Mathias, who for two decades managed the university botanical garden that bears her name, suffered a stroke on Feb. 4 while working in the garden of her Westwood home. She died Feb. 16 at age 88.

An avid hiker, Mathias was always prepared for the trail--her well-worn, tattered flak jacket and backpack stashed with provisions and camera equipment ever at the ready. At the time of her death, Mathias was organizing a tour to Costa Rica this month.

"She just couldn't give up. It was not in her nature to settle down," said Kenneth C. Hill, a son-in-law who lives in Arizona.

The memorial service is scheduled from 10 to 11:30 a.m. in one of Mathias' favorite places on campus, the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden.

Born in 1906 to a Missouri schoolteacher and his wife, Mathias went on to earn her doctorate at age 22 from Washington University in St. Louis. She eventually became one of a few trailblazing female faculty members at UCLA in the 1950s and 1960s.

She married physics scholar Gerald Hassler and raised four children. Hassler died in 1992 while they were hiking in Mexico's rugged Copper Canyon.

She never forgot her Midwestern roots. When acquaintances worried about how she handled the heat of the Amazon, Mathias quipped that summers in southeast Missouri were a lot worse.

She received numerous honors, including being chosen "Woman of the Year" in 1964 by the Los Angeles Times and winning the prestigious Liberty Hyde Bailey Medal in 1980 for her work in horticultural research and education.

She was known internationally for her taxonomic work on the plant family Umbelliferae, which includes many popular aromatic and edible plants--carrots, parsley, coriander, caraway and anise.

She and her co-author of over 41 years, Lincoln Constance of UC Berkeley, described about 100 new Umbelliferae species and several new genera from around the world.

Constance said that the complex plant family "is notoriously difficult. Nobody wants to work in it. We had a monopoly for 50 years."

He recalled that Mathias, an avid mystery book reader whose taxonomic work was a type of scientific sleuthing, had an uncanny knack for identifying unusual strains of the plant family.

She also advocated environmental preservation and the use of native plants in landscaping as far back as the early 1960s, helping to select the landscaping for both the UCLA campus and Disneyland.

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