Obituary: Jimmy Ratter,  tropical botanist devoted to the study of Brazil’s cerrado region

Jimmy Ratter, botanist. Born: 15 February, 1934, in Cambridge. Died: November 3, 2020, in Edinburgh aged 86.

Jimmy Ratter was devoted to the study and preservation of the plant diversity of the cerrado​​​​​​​
Jimmy Ratter was devoted to the study and preservation of the plant diversity of the cerrado​​​​​​​

James Alexander Ratter (“Jimmy” or “Jim”), who has died aged 86, was an internationally respected tropical botanist. Based at Edinburgh, he devoted his work for 55 years, to researching and championing the preservation of the cerrado, Brazil’s vast tropical savanna region. He is remembered as a dedicated scientist, selfless mentor and a man of generous spirit and sharp wit.

The eldest child of Helen and Alexander, Jimmy spent most of his childhood and early 20s in Liverpool, where he studied for his undergraduate and PhD, the latter researching the chromosomes of the sea-spurry, Spergularia. There was one break from Liverpool in the Second World War when he was evacuated with his mother to live with her parents in the Blackhall area of Edinburgh.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Shortly after completing his PhD, and marrying Pamela “Pam” Allsop, in 1960, Jim accepted the position of Scientific Officer at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. He remained at the Garden his entire career, continuing long into his retirement. His work ceased only in 2017, when Alzheimer’s disease made work impossible. His final scientific paper was published in 2019.

Jimmy was devoted to the study and preservation of the plant diversity of the cerrado, which supports an amazing 10,000 plant species. He described plant species new to science and mapped patterns of plant diversity, providing vital data for identifying areas that should be conserved. His legacy is a much fuller understanding: today, these habitats are in the public spotlight, highlighting threats of destruction, such as in soy production for animal feed in Europe.

He loved Brazil, from his first visit in 1967 with the Anglo-Brazilian expedition to Mato Grosso, organised by the Royal Society and Royal Geographical Society. His fieldwork, which continued well into the 2000s, included leading the Ecological Survey of the Maracá Rain Forest Project. Led by the Royal Geographical Society at the invitation of the Brazilian Secretariat for the Environment (SEMA), it was one of the largest early multidisciplinary research projects in Amazonia.

Recognising the importance of speaking Portuguese, Jimmy quickly became fluent. His range of vocabulary and ability to use the vernacular of the varied areas he visited was extraordinary and surprised and delighted Brazilians wherever he went.

Most of all he enjoyed interactions with local people and shared the country’s love of the national drink – cachaça; the stronger and more rustically brewed the better! It is notable that his stories of times in Brazil never focused on illustrious scientists he travelled with, but his field assistants and drivers. Often from poorer backgrounds of the most rural areas of the sertão, they became life-long friends. Jimmy seemed to enjoy the maverick and the loveable rogue above the establishment figure. The detailed diaries of his travels now represent a culturally significant, albeit idiosyncratic, social history of central Brazil, which was a lawless frontier of agricultural expansion when he started working there.

He was blessed with an extraordinary memory, seemingly able to recall the exact situation and characteristic of every plant he ever collected. These amounted to over 8,000 and his specimens now form the key reference point for cerrado plant diversity in collections around the world. It was particularly sad that this exceptional memory was slowly erased by Alzheimer’s, yet it was a delight to see the smile on his face when he did recall his experiences and the exploits of old friends from Brazil.

Jim had legendary stamina in the hot, open, vegetation of the cerrado, despite some peculiar habits. He never drank water during the day because he claimed this caused tiredness. Rehydration came from copious quantities of cold beer, starting late morning – should a bar be passed for refreshment – en route from one field site to another and continued, whilst pressing plants, through the late afternoon and long into the evening.

Long nights or lunches drinking with Jim in Brazil, or in Edinburgh, exemplified a relaxed approach to academia and he rightly railed against colleagues who were “too busy” to spend an extra hour or two to chat. While that may have been partly about camaraderie, he realised the value of relaxed discussion – now often sadly lacking in the modern academic world – for generating ideas and team-building.

Jim was a brilliant botanist, an incisive thinker and writer of the clearest prose. That his academic achievements have not received the wide recognition in the UK that they have in Brazil, reflects his disdain for academic showmanship and loyalty to the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. When most scientists would have directed papers to more prestigious multidisciplinary scientific journals, many of his most significant papers were published in the Edinburgh Journal of Botany.

Elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1998, Jim’s contribution to botany and conservation is well recognised in Brazil. His many honours include the Grand Cross of the National Order of Scientific Merit (Grã-Cruz da Ordem Nacional do Mérito Cientifico), one of the highest scientific accolades given by the Brazilian Government.

Jim’s most lasting impact in Brazil was in building capacity for biodiversity science. He was professor at the University of Brasília and helped found the influential Ecology Department in the 1970s. More recently, he assisted and guided the biological campus at the State University of Mato Grosso, where he has been honoured by a plant collection bearing his name, the Coleção Zoobotânica James Alexander Ratter.

His spirit shone until the end. A favourite activity was editing, redrafting and translating scientific manuscripts of Brazilian students, friends and colleagues and this persisted through the fog of Alzheimer’s. In summer 2019, I visited him in hospital after a fall broke his pelvis, and I left a copy of a paper he had co-authored. The following day, his daughter Alison called to ask if we had worked on it together as she had found it covered with Jim’s neat and precise handwriting; he had woken during the night and decided to give it the Ratter editorial treatment.

Jim is survived by Pam, brother David, sons David and Andrew, daughter Alison and their families.

Toby Pennington

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.