by Jodi Benjamin
Dr. Ann Fowler Rhoads has devoted her life to something that many of us simply overlook. Although necessary for our survival, it is something that blends into the tapestry of our environment.
Dr. Rhoads, who is 70-ish, is an expert on regional plants. In fact, she is an award-winning scientist with a Ph.D in botany who had a distinguished 36-year career at the Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill. She is also a former adjunct professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Pennsylvania.
But her prestigious career had simple origins. Rhoads’ interest in nature was inspired by her mother, a seasoned gardener who took her children on regular excursions into the woods from their home in Delaware County to admire the spring wildflowers.
Rhoads was exposed to vegetation of a different sort when she and her family moved to a farm in southern New Jersey on the outskirts of the Pine Barrens. Despite living on the edge of this ecological wonder, it was on a trip to Philadelphia with her father that Rhoads made a life-changing discovery. Father and daughter visited the famous Leary’s Used Bookstore. There, Rhoads discovered a book by John William Harshberger called “The Vegetation of the New Jersey Pine-Barrens: An Ecologic Investigation.”
“That book opened horizons for me,” she said, “because I realized at that moment that you could study this stuff.” Later, that realization was confirmed for Rhoads in her first college botany class. Fascinated by the material, “I just couldn’t learn enough,” she explained.
Furthering what she describes as her “continuum of learning,” Rhoads eventually attended Rutgers University, graduating with a Ph.D in 1976, a time when women were scarce in academia, especially science departments.
As a graduate student in the sciences at that time, Rhoads was very much aware that she had stepped into a male-dominated world – a fact made strikingly clear by the location of the restrooms in her academic building. Although there were men’s rooms on every floor, there was only one women’s room, inconveniently located in the basement, while Rhoads worked on the third floor.
In 1976, Rhoads was hired as a botanist by the Morris Arboretum. During her long career there, she worked as director of botany, and later, as senior botanist. While at Morris, Rhoads co-authored four influential books and helped create the arboretum’s Pennsylvania Flora Project, whose primary objective is to maintain a computerized database of Pennsylvania plants. Her work on behalf of the environment has also included making recommendations to the state for updating Pennsylvania’s endangered species list.
Through tireless documentation, a specimen collection of 14,000 plants, and sharing her discoveries and expertise in books and articles, she has significantly advanced our understanding of Pennsylvania plant communities.
When asked about her many achievements, Rhoads says that she is particularly proud of the books she co-authored because of their contributions to the field of botany. “The Plants of Pennsylvania: An Illustrated Manual,” which she wrote with her colleague Tim Block, is particularly significant because most states simply don’t have such a comprehensive work on regional flora. Relevant to plant life found in much of the Northeast, the book has also been requested in neighboring states. To meet the demand, Rhoads and Block worked furiously on the second edition, which was published in 2007.
Because of her environmental contributions, Rhoads has been described as “a legend among the region’s ecological scientists” by Mike Weilbacher, executive director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. In fact, in September of this year, the Schuylkill Center in upper Roxborough honored Rhoads with its 2014 Henry Meigs Environmental Leadership Award. The award is named in memory of Henry Meigs, one of the Schuylkill Center’s founders.
Professional success aside, Rhoads, who now lives in Bucks County, hopes to inspire future generations with an appreciation of the natural world, which she has already fostered in her own children and grandchildren. While one of her grandsons is studying ornithology in college, she takes the younger ones on bird-watching expeditions with the starter binoculars that she gave them for Christmas.
“Open your eyes to nature, and enjoy the intricacies of the natural world” is her advice to everyone. “It’s an interesting, changing and ongoing story,” she said, “and appreciating the complexities of this world is my greatest pleasure.”