Robert Folger ‘Bob’ Thorne

Eminent botanist, loving husband and father

Bob Thorne died peacefully on Tuesday, March 24, 2015 in his residence at Oak Tree Lodge, Mt. San Antonio Gardens at the age of 94. Dr. Thorne was professor emeritus of botany with the Claremont Graduate University Department of Botany at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and curator emeritus of the herbarium at RSABG. He had lived in Claremont for 53 years.

He was born on July 13, 1920 in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Up through his high school years, he lived in Gulfport and St. Petersburg, Florida. He graduated summa cum laude in 1941 from Dartmouth College and earned his Master of Science degree in economic botany from Cornell University in 1942. 

The advent of World War II imposed a hiatus to his graduate studies while Bob served in the Army Air Force, flying 40 missions as chief navigator aboard a Consolidated B-24 Liberator. A favorite story that he loved to tell was about being shot down over the Adriatic Sea. As he parachuted near the water—aquatic plants being of keen interest to him—he observed to his delight a species that he had not seen before. Following WWII, he completed his PhD at Cornell in 1949.

Dr. Thorne’s academic career began at the University of Iowa where, during his tenure from 1949 to 1962, he advanced from assistant to full professor. An offer from Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden brought Dr. Thorne to Claremont, where he served as taxonomist and professor as well as curator of the RSABG herbarium (RSA-POM). Upon retirement, he was named professor emeritus by CGU and Pomona College, as well as RSABG taxonomist and curator emeritus of the herbarium.

Over the course of his long career, Dr. Thorne was recognized with many awards including a Fulbright Research Scholarship (1959–1960), Botanical Society of America Merit Award (1996) and Southern California Botanists Lifetime Achievement Award (1999). In 2001, he received the prestigious Asa Gray Award from the American Society of Plant Taxonomists.

Among colleagues who wrote to support his nomination for the Asa Gray Award, Dr. Peter Raven, now president emeritus at the Missouri Botanical Garden, wrote, “Bob is an incredible scholar and a marvelous human being!” and deemed him “a world leader in the study of plant geography, phylogeny and floristics.” Under Dr. Thorne’s guidance, Dr. Raven noted, “the herbarium grew and prospered, becoming one of the outstanding repositories of plants from the western United States and elsewhere.” In 2006, Dr. Thorne was recognized as a Distinguished Fellow of the Botanical Society of America, the highest honor that BSA bestows.

Until a few years ago, Dr. Thorne regularly worked in his office at RSABG, resulting in the publication of “An updated classification of the class Magnoliopsida” (Thorne & Reveal, Botanical Review, 2007) and “Vascular Plants of the High Sierra San Pedro Mártir, Baja California, Mexico” (Thorne, Moran & Minnich, Aliso, 2010).

In addition to his plant collections for the herbarium (over 60,000 specimens added), he was a serious collector of postage stamps, amassing a large collection that emphasized stamps of plants and birds.

His colleagues in the plant sciences and many friends will sorely miss Bob Thorne but, by virtue of the scientific knowledge that he contributed, his legacy will long endure.

Dr. Thorne is survived by his wife of 68 years, Mae Zukel Thorne, his daughter Linda Thorne and her husband Tony Petrella and his nephew and his wife, Doug and Karen Fredericks. He also leaves his great-niece Colby Poppleton and niece Kathie Fredericks as well as two cherished great-grandchildren, Katie and Zoe Petrella.

A Celebration of Life will be held at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden on Saturday, July 11, 2015. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that Bob Thorne’s life be honored by donations to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden to be used to advance the kind of scientific work to which he dedicated his professional life. Contributions may be made to RSABG, 1500 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA  91711. 



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