Hugh Iltis, UW's 'Battling Botanist' dies at 91

Wisconsin State Farmer


Hugh Iltis and Sharon Wisniewski at the dedication of the High Iltis Prairie and Savanna, north of Westfield, WI, 2007.

Madison — Hugh H. Iltis, a noted University of Wisconsin-Madison plant geographer, educator, conservationist and mentor to botany students from across the Americas, died in Madison on Dec. 19.

Passionate, articulate, informed, Iltis was opinionated, sometimes argumentative, but always a fearless defender of the natural world he revered.

Having recognized early the accelerating rate of ecological destruction in the mid-20th century, he helped found the Wisconsin branch of the Nature Conservancy in 1960 and inspired other projects in Wisconsin, Hawaii and Mexico.

An inveterate teacher, he would transform a visit to the Botany Department greenhouse into an impromptu grilling of a graduate student: "What's this flower's family?"

"If you're a friend of his, you are, by default, a student of his because not a moment goes by when you aren't learning something," says Shelly Hamel, who in 1988, inspired by Iltis, established a 120-acre ecological restoration north of Westfield, WI, with her husband, David.

"We have dedicated our retired lives to its restoration and management," Hamel says. Proudly, she notes that the federally-endangered Karner blue butterflies have increased two hundredfold at the site, which was named the Hugh Iltis Prairie and Savanna in 2007.


Hugh Iltis (right) and colleague John Thompson in the herbarium in the late 1950s, studying a “sheet” – a dried plant like those used for centuries to definitively identify plant species.

Concerned with nature's beauty, fragility and preservation, Iltis was one of the first scientists to propose what was later popularized as the "biophilia hypothesis": the notion that psychological health depends on the trees, flowers, butterflies and sunlight in which our ancestors evolved.

A dramatic teacher, Iltis often began classes by noting ecological issues in the headlines. "Hugh was unrestrained in his criticism of individuals and institutions that threatened the environment," says Stanley Temple, UW-Madison Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation and noted ornithologist.

"His annual guest lecture in my biodiversity class was always packed with gibes at religious leaders for opposing population control, politicians for shortsighted, environmentally damaging world views, industry for being greedy, and anyone else for being ignorant. He finished each lecture by admonishing students 'to be a good ancestor' and leave a better world for future generations. Hugh's life was certainly guided by that maxim."