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Felix Gustav Gustafson
LSA Minutes

1889 - 1969

Felix Gustaf Gustafson was born in Foresby, Finland on January 8, 1889. He died at his home in Ann Arbor on January 13, 1969. Orphaned at an early age, he came to America in 1903, and for a while made his home with a half-brother in Ashland, Wisconsin. Felix knew no English when he arrived so he endeavored to overcome this handicap by enrolling in the first grade in a hisconsin school at the age of 14. His efforts must have been successful because he entered the 8th grade in his second year in school.

In 1911 he graduated from Northland Academy in Ashland. While there he learned the printing trade, and this, along with other work, enabled him to attend the University of Wisconsin, from which he graduated in 1915. While in college he met Beulah Lewis whom he married in 1916. The Gustafsons had two sons, Phillip and Lawrence. Lawrence died in 1965.

From Wisconsin Felix Gustafson transferred to Harvard University where hereceived the M.A. degree in 1919, and the Ph.D. in 1921. While at Harvard, he worked part time in the supply department of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. Gustafson became Instructor in Botany at The University of Michigan in 1920. He was promoted to Assistant Professor in 1925, to Associate Professor in1934, and to Professor in 1943. He retired in 1959 after having served on The University of Michigan Faculty for 38 years. Outside recognition came to him when he was invited to be Visiting Lecturer at the Universidade Rural in Rio de Janeiro in 1946. Then in 1959 he received the Charles Reid Barnes Award from the American Society of Plant Physiologists, and Northland College conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in 1961.

Dr. Gustafson's scientific contributions number eighty or more. The first one was published in 1918, and a few were written after retirement. They dealt almost exclusively with his experiments in plant physiology which he performed individually or in collaboration with his students.

Because of his early interest in natural history and his experience in collecting at Wood's Hole, Dr. Gustafson's teaching and research were characterized by the use of a wide variety of organisms. His early work on uptake and permeability utilized fungi and algae, and that which he performed on the same subject shortly before his retirement was with higher plants. He encouraged his students to consider the diversity of living creatures a rich source of experimental material from which generalizations flow.

His principal contributions to plant physiology were concerned with the mechanism of action and role of hormones. This led to his discovery in 1936 that a plant hormone, indole acetic acid, can induce the formation of seedless fruits without pollination. Important hypotheses concerning the action of hormones as well as important applications have been derived from this finding. Other work from his laboratory concerned the respiratory processes of fungi and algae, the distribution of plants as a function of the acidity of soils, the vitamin content of plants and their synthesis, and the effects of ionizing radiations upon plants. Even after his retirement he continued research upon the absorption of minerals through the use of radioactive tracers. And when the effects of the debilitating disease that led to his death forced him to give up his experiments, it was clear that he had given up a way of life.

This devotion to research, and his integrity as a person and scientist, attracted students whose quality set a standard for the Department and his field. In fact, his students have become leaders in plant physiology and are on the staffs of institutions like the Rockefeller Institute, Universities of California and Iowa, Purdue University and others. And among his students are numbered a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a winner of the Paul Lewis Award in Enzyme Chemistry.

Besides teaching plant physiology he also taught Elementary Botany, Systematic Botany and Biology for Teachers, a range of courses that attests to his versatility.

Accompanying his great interest in research and teaching was a warm in¬terest in people. His gruff exterior belied a sympathetic understanding of the problems faced by young people, perhaps because of the difficulties he had experienced in his youth. Many students and colleagues remember the parties at his home where, over an outside grill or fireplace, good food and conversation passed between the Gustafsons and their guests. It was on occasions like these that a twinkle broke through the veneer of Nordic stolidity with which he seemed cloaked.

The thirty eight years of Dr. Gustafson's service to Michigan were fruitful ones for he helped to maintain a balance in teaching and research that many would hope to emulate today. In addition, he brought physiological botany to eminence at Michigan and helped to create a generation of prominent students who, with his colleagues, remember him with affection and respect.

Chester A. Arnold
Alfred S. Sussman