Bastiaan Meeuse at 83 : THE NEW YORK TIMES AUGUST 8, 1999 (fwd)
Bastiaan Meeuse, 83, Expert on Voodoo Lily
By WOLFGANG SAXON
Dr. Bastiaan J.D. Meeuse, a botany professor who withstood
one of nature's foulest floral odors to unlock some of the mysteries of
the voodoo lily, a plant that generates heat along with stench, died
on July 27 at a hospital in Kirkland, Wash. He was 83 and had lived in
Kirkland since 1953.
He retired from the University of Washington in 1986 but stayed
active in his field until recently.
For much of his five decades of research, Meeuse focused on the
voodoo lily, Sauromatum guttatum, because of the intensity of the plant's
behavior. Its huge, smelly flowers, which can weigh up to a
half-pound and get as hot as 108 degrees Fahrenheit inside, made it "a
wonderful botanical guinea pig," he said.
He was not the first to discover that some plants can generate
heat; his Dutch mentors did that but did not pursue it. Meeuse, however,
devoted most of his career to investigating the phenomenon and its
implications for horticulture, agriculture and animal physiology.
His research helped advance the understanding of the oxidation
process in the cells and tissues of plants and animals as well as plant
Scientists suspect that the genes that allow the voodoo lily to
heat itself might someday be harnessed to breed frost-resistant crops.
Study of the plant has also helped explain how salicylic acid regulates
growth in many plants.
Meeuse was an authority on pollination, especially by insects
and birds, and wrote the textbook "The Story of Pollination" (1961). He
was also the co-author, with Sean Morris, of "The Sex Life of Flowers"
(1984). That book was inspired by a 1981 film on public television,
"Sexual Encounters of the Floral Kind," for which Meeuse served as
The voodoo lily is related to the equally putrid giant
Amorphophallus titanum, another rare bloomer known in its native Indonesia
as bunga ngui or corpse flower. A corpse flower specimen in the University
of Washington's botany greenhouse malodorously flowered this year,
a rare and usually unpredictable event, and became an unlikely tourist
Its less-awesome cousin, the Southeast Asian voodoo lily, has
fascinated botanists for two centuries. When it flowers, perhaps once a
year, its fleshy purple spike emits waves of heat and an odor not unlike
that of rotting meat. The chemicals released by the heat apparently help
to attract pollinators.
"These plants work like mad," Meeuse said once. "They respire
and respire and respire."
Meeuse and a series of collaborators published about 200 papers
on the lily over 50 years. In a paper in 1987 he identified the substance
behind the heat-producing "respiratory explosion" as salicylic acid.
That particular acid, related to aspirin and useful as a
pain-killing analgesic, is also present in the bark of the white willow and
wintergreen leaves. It may help to regulate growth in plants.
Meeuse's team found that the salicylic acid levels in their
lilies rose a hundredfold before flowering.
In the 1950s, while pursuing a different line of research,
Meeuse discovered a moss enzyme that burns oxalic acid. The enzyme has
been used to regulate the blood of people whose circulatory systems
overproduce oxalic acid, a condition that could result in a
potentially fatal kidney disease.
Bastiaan Jacob Dirk Meeuse was born on May 9, 1916, in Sukabumi,
a small town on Java, Indonesia, where his parents, who were
teachers, had been sent by the Dutch colonial service. At age 11, he and
his family moved to Bogor, Indonesia, known to the Dutch as Buitenzorg, or
"free of care."
Bogor was then an important colonial outpost with world-famous
botanical gardens. The boy's interest in nature was awakened by their
wonders, and he decided to become a biologist.
His family moved back to Holland in 1931, where he finished high
school and undertook intensive studies of biology, zoology, chemistry
and physics at the University of Leiden, earning his degree in 1936.
He received his doctorate in 1943 at the University of Delft, where
he remained as a laboratory assistant and lecturer until 1952,
interrupted by two years as a Rockefeller Foundation Fellow at the University
of Pennsylvania to study the metabolism of pea seeds.
He joined the faculty at the University of Washington in 1952
and became a full professor of botany in 1960.
Meeuse is survived by his wife of 57 years, Johanne van Ten
Meeuse; a daughter, Karen Meeuse of Woodenville, Wash.; a son, Peter N. of
Kirkland; a brother, Prof. Adriaan D.J. Meeuse of Amsterdam; five
grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Meeuse said his work in the lab at times shrouded him in "an
odor that would drive skunks away."
"Even my cat Blackie," he once said, "won't come near me when
the smell of the lily is on my clothes."
Neal R. Foster, U.S. Department of Interior
U.S.G.S. - Biological Resources Division
Great Lakes Science Center, 1451 Green Road
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105-2807
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