2020 Robert Allerton Award Presented to P. Barry Tomlinson for Extraordinary Contributions to Botany and Horticulture

Kalaheo, Hawaii (May 3, 2022)—The National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) has announced that it has named P. Barry Tomlinson as recipient of the 2020 Robert Allerton Award for his contributions to botany and horticulture. The award was presented to Tomlinson in Boston by NTBG CEO and Director Janet Mayfield and NTBG President Chipper Wichman on March 31.

P. Barry Tomlinson is an Edward C. Jeffrey Professor on Biology, Emeritus at Harvard University and noted expert in the study of the palm family (Arecaceae).

The Robert Allerton Award is presented every other year in recognition of individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to botany or horticulture. Tomlinson was selected as the 2020 recipient after being nominated by NTBG senior research botanist Dr. David Lorence.

Lorence said Tomlinson’s extensive contributions to understanding the biology and function of a wide range of tropical plant groups made him a natural choice to receive the Allerton Award. He praised Tomlinson as an “outstanding botanical mentor” who taught his students to “ask the plants” by studying their functionality on micro and macroscopic levels.

Recalling his enthusiastic teaching style, Lorence described Tomlinson’s delight in demonstrating how a chainsaw and machete could be used to deconstruct a palm, laying out fronds and inflorescence to illustrate how a tree’s parts form the whole. Tomlinson was equally enthusiastic about examining thin sections of plant tissue under a microscope to show students structural anatomy at the cellular level.

From his decades of research to his devotion in teaching generations of future botanists,” Lorence said, “Barry Tomlinson has been a major influence in the world of tropical botany.”

Internationally known for his study of palms, Tomlinson was lead author of the influential The Anatomy of Palms, long considered the definitive reference work showcasing the singular role of the palm family. Additionally, Tomlinson has authored The Botany of Mangroves, Architecture of Tropical Plants, and numerous books and publications on the anatomy and morphology of monocots, the biology of coastal and marine plants including seagrasses, mangroves, and the plants of the Everglades. Additionally, he has published works related to developmental morphology and the reproductive biology of gymnosperms, including Cycads.

Phillip Barry Tomlinson was born in 1932 in Leeds, England where he says he first experienced a curiosity for plants in “the meadow just over the garden wall.” As an undergraduate at the University of Leeds, his fascination with plants grew as he earned a Bachelor of Science and Ph.D.. While a graduate student, Tomlinson began working closely with palms at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Fortuitous timing allowed him the opportunity to dissect and examine a large number of palm trees during a period when the Kew greenhouse was being renovated.

Tomlinson was later appointed to a position at the University of Singapore Botanic Gardens where his fascination with Arecaceae deepened, leading him to travel to West Africa where he was appointed to the faculty of the University of Gold Coast (University of Ghana) for three years in the late 1950s. During that period, he studied palms and their connections to people along coastal West Africa as far south as Cameroon.

From Africa, Tomlinson relocated to Miami, Florida where he began collaborating with the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, the Montgomery Botanical Center, and NTBG’s garden The Kampong located in Coconut Grove. It was there, through his association with Kampong director Larry Schokman, that he forged a relationship with NTBG.

After NTBG offered Tomlinson a research associate position, he embarked on developing a summer teaching course for Harvard University using lab space at The Kampong and Montgomery Botanical Center. While teaching in Miami, Tomlinson had a student named Kiat W. Tan, later known for his role in helping develop Singapore’s concept of a “city in a garden.”

While working at the Montgomery Botanical Center, Tomlinson made fundamental discoveries about the gymnospermous group Cycads based on material cultivated at the center, thereby illuminating characteristic features of their anatomy.

Dr. Patrick Griffith, executive director of the Montgomery Botanical Center, called Tomlinson a “titan among botanists,” saying he was fortunate to have worked with him. “His mastery of classic and fundamental techniques fosters genuine discovery and deep understanding of our plant world,” Griffith said, adding, “Barry is a gifted educator as well. His courses on tropical botany are legendary. Truly, there are very few as deserving as Barry for this high honor.”

Upon learning that he had been selected to receive the Allerton Award, Tomlinson said, “With becoming modesty I am happy to accept the Allerton Award and am honored to be in the company of such distinguished previous recipients.”

Tomlinson attributed much of his success to a long list of mentors and teachers who, he says, guided him on his path to a life of botany. Those named include University of Leeds botany professor Irene Manton who he says, facilitated his acquisition of scholarships and promoted his research. Other noteworthy influences include Charles Russell “C.R” Metcalfe, keeper of Kew’s science laboratory and Harold E. Moore, director of Cornell University’s Bailey Hortorium.

A plainspoken Yorkshireman to his core, Tomlinson, admitted his professional journey has been most unlikely, recalling himself as once a “callow youth from the wastes of the north of England, bouncing around the tropics looking at coconuts.” Never one to mince words or indulge in exaggeration, Tomlinson spoke highly of the towering trees at the center of his career, noting how the palm’s distinctive construction is entirely primary, composed of single axis stem tissue that lives throughout its life, growing mostly in height, not thickness, adding that palms certainly are, by definition, trees. “What’s the definition of a tree?” Tomlinson asked. “A tree is something if you climb and fall out of, you’ll break your neck,” he quipped.

The Robert Allerton Award for Excellence in Tropical Botany or Horticulture is named after one of NTBG’s founding trustees and its principal initial benefactor, and consists of a bronze medal and honorarium. The award was first presented in 1975 to Dr. Richard E. Holttum of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Other past recipients include Dr. Harold St. John, Bishop Museum (1981), Dr. F. R. Fosberg, Smithsonian Institution (1983), Dr. Peter H. Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden (1988), Dr. Warren L. Wagner, Smithsonian Institution (1994), Dr. Natalie Whitford Uhl, Cornell University (2003), Prof. Sir Ghillean Prance, Eden Project (2005), and Dr. David Lorence, NTBG (2017). Prof. Tomlinson is the 22nd recipient of the Allerton Award.

The National Tropical Botanical Garden is a not-for-profit, non-governmental institution with nearly 2,000 acres of gardens and preserves in Hawaii and Florida. Its mission is to enrich life through discovery, scientific research, conservation, and by perpetuating the survival of plants, ecosystems, and cultural knowledge of tropical regions. NTBG is supported primarily through donations and grants.

Media contact: media@ntbg.org

« All News

Add impact to your inbox

Join our mailing list for timely plant saving news and information