Mildred Mathias, UCLA’s grande dame of botany, who after her retirement exchanged her classroom for exotic rain forests and jungles and trudged up mountains when most octogenarians were nesting in their recliners, has died.
The scientist and professor for whom UCLA’s botanical garden is named was 88. She died Thursday at her Brentwood home of the complications of a stroke.
Trained as botanist, horticulturist and conservationist, she also became a globe-trotter who earned the admiration of her colleagues in academia and the wonder of those she escorted through the lush jungles of Africa, Central America, Australia, China and New Guinea.
“She is a fantastic character and an outstanding scientist with a brilliant record,” said Lincoln Constance, botanist emeritus at UC Berkeley, in 1988 on the eve of Mathias’ 12th tour of the Peruvian Amazon. “She wins another award about once a month. If we were living in the British Empire she’d be a dame.”
Harlan Lewis, retired head of the UCLA botany department, said, “Very often when I’ve been traveling in out-of-the-way places like Bulgaria, the only person’s name they know is Mildred Mathias.”
The author of 200 research papers, articles and books did not confine her interests to foreign lands. She was instrumental in the acquisition of the 50,000-acre Santa Cruz Island reserve--off Santa Barbara--by the Nature Conservancy, which she served as Southern California president. She also was chairwoman of the UC Natural Reserve System, which controls 26 sites around the state where ecologists do field studies.
Born and raised in a small town in the Missouri Ozarks, Mathias attended Washington University in St. Louis, where she met her late husband, an engineer.
She earned her doctorate from Washington when she was 22 and spent the next several years as a researcher at the Missouri and New York botanical gardens before coming to UCLA in 1947. She was professor of botany from 1962 until retiring in 1974. She was an emeritus professor until her death.
Though officially retired, she began leading nature study courses for UCLA Extension, taking hundreds of non-scientists to faraway lands while continuing to teach undergraduate biology courses.
She was a specialist in the carrot family (umbelliferae) and in taxonomy, the science of classification.
In 1979 Chancellor Charles E. Young announced that an eight-acre garden at the southeast corner of the UCLA campus would be named for her. It contains about 4,000 species of native and exotic plants and a research herbarium.
Young remembered Mathias as “a beloved faculty member and a distinguished scholar. . . . The botanical garden that bears her name is a living legacy of her extraordinary achievements.”
During one interview with The Times, which had honored her as a Woman of the Year in 1964--she admitted that early on she had become bored with retirement.
“I wouldn’t want to sit at home playing bridge and I wouldn’t want to live somewhere where there were no young people,” she said.
Survivors include a sister, two daughters, a son and eight grandchildren. The family asks that donations be sent to the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden Endowment Fund, UCLA Department of Biology, 405 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles 90095.