John Curtis: The Original Restoration Ecologist

John Curtis, shown his lab in 1951.

John Curtis, shown here in his lab in 1951, introduced the concept of burning prairie as a means of restoration. The Arb conducted its first burn in the 1940s. UW ARCHIVES S04992

Bring up conservation in Wisconsin and you’ll often hear the name John Curtis, along with such innovators as Aldo Leopold.

A professor of botany, Curtis was a pioneer of restoration ecology before the term existed. In his relatively short career, the namesake of Curtis Prairie at the UW Arboretum dramatically changed how we study plants respective to their surroundings, and he inspired the protection and restoration of hundreds of Wisconsin’s natural areas.

While growing up in southeastern Wisconsin, Curtis was fascinated by the precise conditions orchids needed to thrive, and his doctoral work at the UW focused on the flower’s physiology.

Read the full On Wisconsin article by Wendy Hathaway, in the Spring 2019 issue.