By Emily Hunter, Field Book Project
We get to know some interesting characters by reading field notes. Floyd Alonzo McClure (1897-1970) was one of these characters that I had the pleasure of learning about while cataloging SIA collection T90028.
McClure was a bamboo guy. (We really get familiar with these collectors, don’t we?) To put it another way, he studied Bambusoideae, a large group of genera in the grass family (Poaceae), for the majority of his career. His major work was the publication “The Bamboos, a Fresh Perspective,” which was published in 1966. McClure’s connection to the Smithsonian began in 1940s, when he joined the National Museum of Natural History as an Honorary Research Associate. But let’s start a little earlier.
McClure was born in 1897 in Shelby County, Ohio. He attended Ohio State University where he earned a BS in Agriculture in 1919. That year, McClure took a position in China teaching Economic Botany at Canton Christian College (later Lingnan University), a move that would define much of his life and career and lead him to spend 24 years in that country.
McClure found a lot to learn about in China beyond just bamboo. He studied Chinese language and culture. He was interested in the land, the people, and the local customs. As a botanist, these interests served him well. Navigating the country, speaking with farmers, and learning local uses for bamboo plants certainly must have informed his career in economic botany.
McClure lived in Canton, China and went on collecting expeditions throughout Hainan province in 1921, 1922, 1929, and 1932. He collected bamboo specimens mainly, but occasionally other grasses, orchids, and other higher plants. He wrote about his daily experiences and observations in his diaries. While reading through, I found his reflections on the people and cultures he observed respectful and thoughtful. He made “tentative” observations, and allowed for differences in perspective and opinion. McClure was a humble man. His field notes made it very clear that even though he was a teacher, he enjoyed learning from others around him. The Japanese invasion of China in 1941 forced McClure to return to the United States where he would spend the rest of his life.
It’s easy to get lost in McClure’s diaries. They speak of his day-to-day life, a blend of family and botanizing. Amidst teaching and conducting botanical work in the lab, McClure went on bicycle rides with his wife Ruth, and spent a great deal of time with his two young daughters, Sophie Louise and Janet (or “Bunny”).
His entries depict a loving and dedicated husband and father. McClure’s family did, indeed, seem to become enmeshed in his professional life. The first and strongest example is the fact that McClure brought his new wife to Canton where they spent the first decades of married life together and raised two children. When McClure took trips, his wife and children sometimes came along. In 1959, Ruth became his research assistant, working with him daily until he passed away.
McClure saw the connections between studying plants and thinking about how they can contribute to a society, reinforce culture, and even take a role during war times.
In 1943 McClure was recruited for his knowledge of bamboo by the U.S. military. If that sentence sounds odd to you, you are not alone—I also was surprised to learn this! During World War II, the National Defense Research Committee was looking for someone with a deep knowledge of bamboo to research options for making ski poles for troops in extreme northern climates. At the time, wood was expensive and increasingly in demand. Bamboo was practical and fairly cheap. McClure was their man. McClure traveled to Central American locations to research and conduct experiments on bamboo species that could be used to make ski poles. I haven’t found a great deal of information on the result of these efforts, but I certainly hope that U.S. troops benefited from McClure’s knowledge of safe, sturdy bamboo species.
Often, interesting tidbits like this one are wrapped up in the field notes. It’s what makes field notes so unique; they are rarely cut and dry, and more often than not, include all sorts of information beyond just lists of specimens collected. McClure’s diaries can give us a wealth of information on culture, wartime activities, family life, and the man behind the books.
Meyer, F. G. (1972). Floyd Alonzo McClure (1897–1970) — A Tribute. Economic Botany, 26(1), 1-12.
Walker, E. H. & Archer, W. A. (1971). Floyd Alonzo McClure (1897-1970). Taxon, 20(5/6), 777-784.