Dr Stuart Max Walters

Max Walters botanisingDr Stuart Max Walters   1920 – 2005  
Director of the Botanic Garden 1973 – 1983
Plant Taxonomist, Pioneering Conservationist, Lecturer, Flora co-author, Editor, Pacifist

Career & Awards
Research Fellow, St John’s College, 1949
Curator of University Herbarium, 1949 – 1973
Part-time Director of BSBI Mapping Scheme, 1954
Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, 1964
RHS Victoria Medal of Honour, 1984
Linnean Medal of Botany, 1995
Honorary Fellow of the Linnean Society
Honorary Member of BSBI
RHS Scientific Committee Member 1976 – 1994

Max Walters was born in Oughtibridge, near Sheffield, on 23rd May 1920.  A youthful love of plants turned into a life-long professional passion on a gap-year trip to the Swiss Alps, and at Cambridge under the guidance of two influential mentors, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter, Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and Sir Harry Godwin, later Professor of Botany at Cambridge.  Max Walter’s PhD focused on a relatively new field, experimental taxonomy – cultivating plants in uniform conditions.  His research in Eleocharis was conducted at Wicken Fen, as well as at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.  Max Walters retained a keen interest in Wicken Fen and served on the National Trust’s local Botanical Committee in many roles for over 50 years, between 1949 – 2004.

East Anglian rare plants

“Max Walters was a leading light in the world of plant taxonomy and conservation of the countryside.  Flora Europaea was one of the most important taxonomic works published in [the 20th] century.”  Peter Sell

As a pioneering conservationist, Max Walters became involved in a wide range of local, national and international conservation projects as well as influential Flora-writing projects.  Max Walters partnership with Franklyn Perring on the Atlas of the British Flora project (1962) “… initiated a new era in natural history in the British Isles and much of northern Europe, popularising a method of displaying the results of recording which was to become almost universal at both national and local level,” says Peter Sell.  Max’s concern for plant conservation led to the establishment of the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG) in 1978.

leaf images_0000Donald Pigott, who was to become Director of the Botanic Garden in 1984, was a good friend of Max Walters. (Left on Wicken Mere in 1960 by W M Lane). Pigott had been taught by Walters when he came up to to Cambridge to study Botany in 1946.  Later, he accompanied Walters on numerous botanising field trips across the British Isles, Scotland and Ireland. Donald Pigott recalls ‘The major thing we were involved in together was the mapping of the Flora for the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI).  He became the Director of it, after the initial setting up by a committee of which I was a member.  That interest I shared with him and Franklyn Perring for the rest of our – for the rest of their – lives.’

Max Walters was one of the co-authors of Flora Europaea, described as ‘one of the most important taxonomic works published in [the 20th century].’  The idea for the Flora was first mooted at the International Botanical Congress held in Paris in 1954.  The final conference, held at King’s College, Cambridge in 1977, brought together 131 delegates from 30 countries. Peter Sell recalls: “It was probably the last time that great group of Cambridge botanical taxonomists who originated as Gilbert-Carter students in the 1930s, which included the editors of Flora Europaea, and those who were Max’s students between 1950 and 1970, came together in one place.”


Another major Flora, The European Garden Flora, was begun in 1976 during a visit to the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh.  This new six-volume series was edited by James Cullen, Max Walters and a panel of other botanists. Volume 2 was published in 1984 and the final Volume 6 appeared in 2000.  Max Walters contributed 25 genera to this Flora.  These included Alchemilla Lady’s Mantle, which was a research interest.  During Max Walter’s directorship, Alchemilla borders with most of the British Alchemilla species were planted in the Botanic Garden.

Alchemilla border

“Max devoted much time to teaching.  He gave second-year students lectures on experimental taxonomy, variously entitled ‘Evolution and reproduction’, ‘Taxonomy and evolution’ and ‘Genetics and experimental taxonomy’.”

The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG) was established as a pioneering plant conservation charity in 1978.  Max Walters was one of the founding members of this self-funding charity, now known as Plant Heritage.  It is dedicated to the protection and preservation of British plant heritage through the National Plant Collections® Scheme and the Demeter® Project database, as well as through its 35 ‘grass roots’ regional groups across the country.

IMG_0504In 1981, Max Walters wrote The Shaping of Cambridge Botany to coincide with the 150th year Anniversary of the purchase of the land for the ‘New’ Botanic Garden in Cambridge.   The subtitle of his book,  A short history of Whole-Plant Botany in Cambridge from the time of Ray into the Present Century, focuses on the development of the study of Botany in past centuries. By the late 20th-century when Walters’ was writing, molecular biology was transforming the way that plants were being studied.  Indeed only a decade later, the School of Botany at Cambridge changed its name to the Department of Plant Sciences to mark the new biological approaches to plants, away from whole-plant botany.

Max Walters  1288 300dpiPeter Sell, taxonomist and co-author of the Flora of Great Britain and Ireland with Gina Murrell worked closely with Max Walters in the Herbarium, when he took over as Curator in 1950.  Peter Sell recalls: “He did everything it was possible to do to help me in a lifelong study of the British flora and in the way which was the embodiment of a great University…. from an amazing 2000-mile trip round Ireland in 1952 with Tom Tutin, Tige Böcher, David Webb, Donald Pigott and Roy Clapham, through all the student excursions, both at home and abroad…”.

PE3 Max Walters retirement

Read more about Max Walters’ life, his botanical work, his legacy, including the Atlas of the British Flora, (1962) in the journal Watsonia 26: 215-227 (2007), also Franklyn Perring’s Obituary in Watsonia 26: 197-211 (2006).

Max Walters’ retirement party, 1983

Max Walters’ Complete List of Publications in Watsonia (2007)
Walters, SM and Stow EA (2001) Darwin’s Mentor: John Stevens Henslow 1796-1861, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge