Cowan, Richard S., 1921-

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Biographical History

Richard Sumner Cowan was born January 23, 1921 in Crawfordsville, Indiana. He spent much of his childhood and early education in Florida. In 1938 he returned to his birthplace, and soon thereafter married Mary Frances Minnick on June 28, 1941. He also attended Wabash College, and received his degree in 1942. During World War II, he served in the United States Navy in the Pacific theater 1943-1945. While serving in the armed forces, Cowan was able to collect a few plants on islands where his unit was stationed. In 1946 he became a teaching assistant at the University of Hawaii, and after two years earned his master's degree. In 1948, Cowan became a technical assistant at the New York Botanical Garden. In 1952 he was promoted to assistant curator upon completing his Ph.D. at Columbia University. During his time in New York, he made a number of scientific trips including two to Venezuela, and one to Brazil and French Guiana. In May 1957 he accepted a position as Associate Curator in the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution. He traveled to the West Indies in 1959 as part of the Bredin-Archbold-Smithsonian Survey of Dominica, and in 1962 he led an expedition into British Guiana in order to help create a tropical rain-forest exhibit at the museum. Cowan then began a very rapid and impressive rise in the museum and in 1962 he was appointed assistant director of the National Museum of Natural History. In mid-1965 he became deputy director of the Museum, eventually becoming Director from 1965 - 1972. After 1972 he was appointed senior botanist in the Department of Botany and on October 31, 1985 he officially retired from the Smithsonian after 28 years. The following year Cowan moved to Perth, Australia and married Roberta Ann Tobias. During his time in Australia, he began studying Australian Acacia and other Australian mimosoids. He died in Perth on November 17, 1997.


Nicolson, D. H. (May 1998). R. S. Cowan (1921-1997). Taxon, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 520-521.

Related entities

National Museum of Natural History (U.S.): He was Director of the National Museum of Natural History from 1965 to 1972.

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