S.H. “Sy” Sohmer, the first executive director of the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) and now its director emeritus, will receive the organization’s 2015 International Award of Excellence in Conservation of Dec. 9. Sohmer is the 21st recipient of the award, joining such notables as renowned chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall and wildflower advocate Lady Bird Johnson.
Sohmer joined BRIT in 1993. Under his leadership, the institute grew from a staff of three with a collection of about 450,000 dried plant specimens in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse in downtown Fort Worth to the 11th largest herbarium in the United States with more than 1.1 million specimens. He stepped down in 2014.
“Sy has distinguished himself in his scientific field of botany like few others,” said Harry Bartel, BRIT’s chairman of the board of directors, in a news release announcing the award. “He has explored places like Papua New Guinea, named new plant species, taught university students and, closer to home, created relationships with individuals, families and business that have helped provide the funding for a leading botanical institute.”
The award will be presented Dec. 9 during a dinner at The Worthington Renaissance hotel in downtown Fort Worth. The award was created in 1995 and is presented to individuals and organizations that exemplify the ideals expressed in BRIT’s mission.
Sohmer said that even he did not visualize what BRIT would become when he took the job, but that he understood how important community support was going to be.
“I had a vision that it could be great and I knew that without the full support of the community I could get nowhere,” Sohmer said, “so, I put my efforts there – including buying a house that I knew [my wife] Sara and I could use to entertain.”
BRIT incorporated as a nonprofit in 1987 to accept the Southern Methodist University Herbarium and its botanical library of 75,000 volumes from the personal collections of Lloyd H. Shinners, one of the most influential Texas botanists of the 20th century, according to the institute’s website. BRIT opened to the public in 1991 and moved into its new headquarters building on land next to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden on University Drive in February 2011.
Sohmer’s successor is Edward L. Schneider, who will take over as president and executive director effective Dec. 15. Schneider spent 18 years at Texas State University in San Marcos, where he held various positions including dean of the College of Science. He was president of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden from 1992 to 2010, and most recently he was director of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska, Minnesota.
Sohmer considers his most significant accomplishment at BRIT to be that he was “able to leave the organization on a sound financial footing,” he said. “I spent most of the last 10 years there trying to catalyze the formation of a solid endowment.”
Herbariums are important because they document the diversity of plants on earth, he says. “Unfortunately, future generations will only know the great diversity that existed on earth mainly through these collections,” Sohmer said.
Genetic diversity is important to maintain because of the risk from a pathogen that attacks a specific plant species. “As the Irish potato famine should have taught us over a hundred years ago, the restriction of genetic diversity in crops is an accident waiting to happen,” Sohmer said.
Sohmer was born in the Bronx in New York City. He graduated from the City College of New York with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry and earned a master’s degree in botany at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. There, he met Sara Harrison, whom he would marry. Both earned doctorate degrees from the University of Hawaii.
Sohmer is currently a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution Natural History Museum, where he began his career. He is also principal of Sohmer and Associates, a consulting firm dealing with fundraising and conservation of biological diversity. And he is special advisor to the principal of Capel Manor College in London.
Sohmer said he is “getting back to the research I left two decades ago when I was recruited to the Agency for International Development and then to BRIT.” From 1990 to 1993 he was the senior biodiversity advisor for AID.
Sohmer’s primary work was in the genus Psychotria, one of the largest genera of woody plants in the world with well over 2,000 species that includes the coffee family. “I began work with the genus when I was a post doc at the Smithsonian in the early ’70’s,” Sohmer said.
INTERNATIONAL AWARD OF EXCELLENCE IN CONSERVATION
Dec. 9, 2015
Fort Worth Hotel
Reception: 6:30 p.m.
Dinner: 7 p.m.
For more information or to reserve tickets, contact Jessica Geider, 817-332-2748