B. Templeton, 95; Museum Botanist


Bonnie Templeton, a pioneering female botanist who served as curator of botany for the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History from 1929 to 1970, has died. She was 95.

Templeton, a Los Angeles resident, died of heart and kidney failure Jan. 29 in a Glendale hospital.

Templeton's botanical accomplishments ranged from discovering a rare plant on the El Segundo sand dunes in the 1930s to assembling botanical evidence from the La Brea Tar Pits in the 1960s that proved that the climate of Southern California during the Pleistocene era was much cooler and wetter than previously believed.

She also endured years of discrimination in a male-dominated field.

"She was a trailblazer for women scientists at a time when there were basically no women in science," said Stella Coakley, head of the botany and plant pathology department at Oregon State University, where Templeton received her doctorate.

Born in Newman Grove, Neb., Oct. 23, 1906, Templeton moved to Los Angeles alone at the age of 16. She stumbled into botany by chance.

After a variety of jobs that included working as a waitress and a secretary, she was sent by an employment agency to the home of a hobbyist who needed help classifying and mounting specimens in his extensive collection of dried plants.

From what had simply been a means to pay the rent, Templeton found a vocation.

By 1928, she had learned enough about plants to become assistant botanist at the California Botanic Garden in Los Angeles.

A year later, she was named curator of botany at the county Museum of Natural History, where she remained for 41 years.

"Her boss and others kind of hassled her because she didn't have degrees," said Chester Weiche, Templeton's husband of 59 years.

So, while continuing to work full time at the museum, Templeton attended night classes at USC, where she earned her bachelor's degree in botany in 1941 and her master's degree in 1947.

She took a year's leave of absence and earned her doctorate in 1964, writing her thesis on the fruits and seeds of the Rancho La Brea Pleistocene deposits.

Templeton's research, Times science writer George Getze wrote in 1964, painted a picture of a Los Angeles area in the Pleistocene era as a well-watered meadowland, dotted with trees and shrubs.

Most paleontologists believed that the climate of Southern California 15,000 years ago was just about as dry as it is now, if not drier.

But the scientific consensus was based on fossil remains of birds, rodents and other animals today associated with dry grasslands.

"Animal life is not in itself a reliable guide to climate," Templeton told The Times.

"Animals migrate, and their remains may be those of individuals or herds caught far from their natural habitat by some unseasonal change in the weather."

But plants, she said, don't move.

They germinate, mature, go to seed and die in one place.

However, diggers at the La Brea Tar Pits in the early 1900s had carelessly thrown aside most of the plant material they found, resulting in the loss of valuable evidence of what the climate was like.

But in what Getze characterized as a brilliant piece of scientific sleuthing, Templeton found seeds, leaves, and other parts of plants in the tar that was taken from inside the skulls of saber-tooth cats that had been trapped in the tar pits.

The evidence included seeds of many plants that no longer grow in the area because it is too dry.

Throughout her long career as a botanist, Templeton experienced what she believed was a pattern of discrimination against women in the sciences.

At one point, she recalled in a 1993 Times interview, the head of the biology department at USC told her that no woman would get a doctorate in botany as long as he had a say in it.

At the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, Templeton said, officials often ordered books for her male colleagues but she had to buy her own.

And while most male department heads had assistants, her requests for an assistant to help ease her workload were rejected.

"Even after I got my doctorate, it took a whole year before anyone [at the museum] would call me doctor," she said.

Templeton said she suffered the deepest wound early in her career when she was unable to get official recognition for Pholisma paniculatum, the rare plant she discovered on the El Segundo sand dunes in 1932.

The white-flowered plant, she believed, was significantly different from another parasitic plant, the bright-pink flowered P. arenarium, which is usually found in the desert.

Templeton said she wrote an article about her discovery and showed a copy of it to Philip Munz, a well-known botanist who was writing a book on the flora of Southern California, but he refused to recognize her find.

That's still largely the case.

"Most of the books that describe the plants of Southern California have generally not accepted it as a valid species, but it's not clear that they are correct to do that," said Andrew C. Sanders, curator of the herbarium at UC Riverside.

"The plant is poorly known," Sanders said. "Nobody has studied it closely because nobody can find it."

Indeed, the unusual plant that Templeton discovered and named has been elusive.

But after seeming to have disappeared from the El Segundo sand dunes amid years of beachfront construction, P. paniculatum made a surprising comeback in 1993.

"When I first heard they had found it, I almost cried over the phone," Templeton said at the time. "It's like, if you lost a diamond ring, and after all those years, finally it was there. To me, it's that much of a treasure."

While working as curator of botany at the county Museum of Natural History, Templeton served as an on-call forensic botanist for the Los Angeles Police Department, as well as being on call for the poison center.

After retiring from the museum in 1970, she founded the California Botanical Science Service, a private consulting business in Glendale, which she operated for about 20 years.

In addition to her husband, Templeton is survived by a sister, Matie Till of Corpus Christie, Texas.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Thursday February 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 4 inches; 126 words Type of Material: Correction Templeton obituary--In the obituary of Bonnie Templeton on Feb. 5 in the California section, Templeton, the former curator of botany at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, was quoted as saying in 1993 that she had experienced discrimination against women in the sciences during her career. While efforts to reach museum officials in advance of the obituary's publication were unsuccessful, one of her former colleagues refuted some of her points after the obituary appeared. William Emboden, senior curator of botany at the museum during Templeton's tenure, said, "The Museum of Natural History did not discriminate in hiring, promoting or providing staff with those things necessary to their advancement. Bonnie was no exception. . . . We had numerous distinguished women in all areas as our colleagues and we took great pride in their achievements in both science and education."
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