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Obituary
Donald Kaplan

16 January 2008

Donald Robert Kaplan, professor emeritus of plant biology and an influential expert on the development of the diverse forms and shapes of plants, died Dec. 17, 2007, from complications of pneumonia. He was 69 years old.


Fellow botanists credit Kaplan's detailed studies and analyses of leaf development for setting the standard in the field of plant morphology.

Ann Hirsch, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at UCLA and a former graduate student of Kaplan's, said that his research and teaching "opened our eyes to the tremendous diversity of plant form, as well as how integrated all these forms are. It will take another unique thinker someday to link Kaplan's ideas on leaf form with what we have learned about the genes involved in leaf development."

Lewis Feldman, a Berkeley professor and former chair of plant biology, said Kaplan's approach to research differed from most of his U.S. colleagues at the time. "Most American morphologists approached development in a taxonomic way, beginning with ferns and moving up to flowering plants," said Feldman. "Kaplan's approach cut across this spectrum to try to understand similarities between plants. What that did was show people a different way of looking at development."

Colleagues said that Kaplan's studies in plant morphology stemmed from his love of pure science and knowledge rather than thoughts of how his work could be applied. Nevertheless, they noted, his work has implications for the agricultural sciences, providing a foundation for molecular manipulations to improve crop or ornamental plants.

Kaplan was born in Chicago on Jan. 17, 1938. As a teenager, he caddied for famed Chicago golfer Chick Evans, founder of the Evans Scholars Foundation, a college scholarship program that funded Kaplan's undergraduate education at Northwestern University. In 1960, Kaplan graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor's degree in biology from Northwestern University.

He continued his studies as a graduate student at Berkeley, earning a Ph.D. in botany in 1965. Later that year he joined the newly established UC Irvine campus as an assistant professor of botany and one of its founding faculty members.

In 1968 he returned to Berkeley as an associate professor, and was promoted to full professor in 1976. He retired from Berkeley in 2004 but remained active in his field.

Kaplan earned many honors and awards throughout his career, including the Alexander von Humboldt Distinguished Senior U.S. Scientist Award, the Botanical Society of America's Merit Award for Outstanding Contributions to Botanical Science, and the UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award. A fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, Kaplan also held positions as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow and a Miller Research Professor.

When not immersed in the world of plants, Kaplan nurtured a strong interest in classical music, opera, and railroads. He authored several articles about railroads, as well as a book, Duneland Electric, about the inter-urban electric railway that runs from Chicago along the south shore of Lake Michigan to South Bend, Ind.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, of Kensington; two sons, Andrew of Las Vegas and Timothy of Pleasant Hill; and a sister, Barbara Goldstein of Salt Lake City.

The family requests that donations in Kaplan's memory be made to the Evans Scholars Foundation, 1 Briar Rd., Golf, IL 60029, or to the UC Botanical Garden (checks made payable to UC Regents), 200 Centennial Dr., Berkeley, CA 94720-5045.

A campus memorial is being planned.

- Sarah Yang