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January 20, 1997

Kenneth V. Thimann, founding provost of Crown College, dies at 92

By Robert Irion

Kenneth V. Thimann, whose career as one of the world's leading botanists spanned more than 50 years at Harvard University and UCSC, where he served as founding provost of Crown College, died on Wednesday, January 15. He was 92.

Thimann died peacefully at his home at The Quadrangle, Haverford, PA, following a long illness. He was surrounded by family members and friends.

Thimann was a pioneering researcher in the field of plant physiology. He was best known for describing the functions of hormones in the control and development of plants. In particular, 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 also was highly regarded for his research on the biosynthesis of pigments responsible for the colors of flowers and fruits, and the action of various zones of the light spectrum on photosynthesis. Later in life, he began to focus on the factors controlling the mechanisms of plant senescence, especially the aging of leaves.

For his contributions, Thimann received the prestigious Balzan Prize in 1982, an honor awarded yearly in areas not covered by the Nobel Prizes. The award was worth $110,000. "The impact of [Thimann's] discoveries on agriculture and horticulture cannot be underestimated," wrote the Balzan Prize committee. "The elucidation of the way in which individual [plant] hormones act in connection with other hormones present is considered as one of his greatest achievements. He is also 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."

Thimann's numerous other honors included membership in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and international scientific societies in England, France, Germany, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, and Romania. He held honorary degrees from Harvard University, the University of Basel in Switzerland, the University of Clermont-Ferrand in France, and Brown University. The degree from Brown, awarded in 1989, included a citation that read, in part, "As a statesman of science, and one whose own discoveries have had far-reaching application to the feeding of our planet, we honor you today for your achievements both human and humane."

During his scientific career Thimann wrote or coauthored about 300 research papers and several books. Three of his books are considered landmarks in the development of modern botany: Phytohormones (1937), coauthored with F. W. Went; The Life of Bacteria (1955); and Hormone Action in the Whole Life of Plants (1977).

Thimann was born in Ashford, England, on August 5, 1904. He earned his B.Sc. and Ph.D. in chemistry and biochemistry from Imperial College, University of London, and a diploma from the University of Graz, Austria. He taught at the University of London for several years before coming to the California Institute of Technology in 1930 as an instructor in bacteriology and biochemistry.

Thimann joined the faculty of Harvard University in 1935 and remained there for 30 years. He was director of Harvard's Biological Laboratories from 1946 through 1950 and was Higgins Professor of Biology from 1962 to 1965. He was an associate at Eliot House, and in 1962 he became the first master of East House at Radcliffe College when Radcliffe organized its women's residences along the lines of the Harvard houses.

Thimann was a technical consultant to the U.S. Navy during World War II. He worked with the Navy's operations research group in Washington, D.C., London, and Pearl Harbor.

In 1965 Thimann moved west at the urging of UCSC's founding chancellor, Dean McHenry, to become professor of biology and the first provost of Crown College, the third of UCSC's eight academic colleges. Thimann retired as provost in 1972 but remained active in research and university affairs for many years. He moved to Haverford in 1989, where he set up an active research collaboration at the University of Pennsylvania with the eldest of his three daughters.

UCSC honored Thimann's pioneering contributions to his field and to the early growth of the campus by renaming its first biological sciences research facility, Natural Sciences 1, for him in 1972. Today, Thimann Laboratories houses research and instructional labs in chemistry and biochemistry.

Among Thimann's most noteworthy contributions to the campus was his nurturing of the UCSC Arboretum into an internationally known collection of plants from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. He chaired the chancellor's committee on Arboretum and plantations for 15 years and helped to launch the Arboretum Associates, a community support group, in 1977. He also was an accomplished amateur pianist and founded the Crown Chamber Players with his wife, Ann Mary Bateman Thimann, a skilled weaver who died in 1987.

Thimann is survived by his daughters, Vivianne Nachmias of Philadelphia, professor of cell biology at the University of Pennsylvania; Karen Romer of Providence, RI, associate dean for academic affairs at Brown University; and Linda Dewing of Providence, a self-employed artist and businesswoman; six grandchildren; and two great grandchildren.

Friends may make contributions in Thimann's memory to the UCSC Arboretum Associates. Checks payable to the UC Santa Cruz Foundation and designated for the Arboretum Associates may be sent to the following address: UC Santa Cruz Foundation, University Advancement, 1156 High Street, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, 95064-1077.

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