Hugh Hellmut Iltis is a botanist, conservationist, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, and Director Emeritus of the WIS Herbarium. He is renowned for research and discoveries surrounding the origin of cultivated corn from its wild ancestors, for his passionate and outspoken efforts to conserve wild lands and species, and for training a generation of botanists who went on to important careers in research and conservation.
Dr. Iltis was born in Brno in the former Czeckoslovakia in 1925. In 1939, weeks before the Nazis invaded Czeckoslovakia, his family emigrated to the U.S. He served in the U.S. Army in Europe from 1944 – 1946, primarily in Army intelligence, interviewing Nazis and reviewing evidence of German war crimes. He later worked as a research assistant at the University of Tennessee, and subsequently studied at the Missouri Botanical Garden and Washington University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1952. In 1955, he became Assistant Professor and Director of the Herbarium at UW-Madison. He served as Director until his retirement in 1993.
At the Herbarium, he worked on several projects, including:
Systematics and evolution of cultivated corn (Zea mays) and its wild relatives – Dr. Iltis did extensive field work in Mexico and northern Central America to unravel theorigin of maize and the geographic distributions of its teosinte relatives. He also closely studied land races maintained by subsistence farmers to better understand the genetic and morphological diversity present in Zea.
Systematics and evolution of plant species belonging to the families Capparaceae and Cleomaceae – He visited and studied plant populations at many field sites in North, Central, and South America to identify new species and to comprehend systematic and evolutionary relationships within this group.
Flora of Wisconsin – Dr. Iltis and students collected widely across the state, helping to build the WIS plant collections to nearly one million specimens by his retirement.
Conservation – He worked throughout his career to imbue his students with a sense of wonder, curiosity, and awe about the natural world as well as their personal responsibility to conserve it. He made repeated and conspicuous efforts at the state, national, and international scale to conserve natural habitats and to limit the impacts of the human population and its activities, often quoting the maxim “you are here to be a good ancestor.”
“Can one love a plastic tree?” – Dr. Iltis was fascinated by human adaptations to, and appreciation of, nature. He was a strong advocate of “biophilia” well before the term was coined. He contemplated, and often agonized over, the tension between human drives for survival and needs for contact with nature. In the images shown here, you’ll see gorgeous flowers, beautiful cloud forests, and smiling children juxtaposed with eroding, flayed, and or burned landscapes ravaged by human ignorance and greed.
In 2012, Don Waller, Bil Alverson, Tyler Schappe, and staff of the UW Digital Collections worked with Dr. Iltis to select a subset of 35-mm slides from his travels in Latin America to reflect his interests and unique way of seeing the world. We hope that these inspire you to learn more and to care—and act—to ensure that these species and their habitats persist.
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