Art Whistler, PhD, adjunct professor of botany at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa, died on April 2, 2020, at age 75 after battling COVID-19 for more than three weeks. He was our long-time neighbor, fellow field researcher, and friend.
Whistler was born on October 12, 1944, in southern California, where he developed a love for plants. He earned a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of California, Riverside, in 1965, then a master’s in botany from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1966. During his time in college, the United States was experimenting with an alternative form of interaction with the world: the Peace Corps. After graduation, he volunteered for the Peace Corps and was sent to Western Samoa to teach biology, a decision that gave direction and meaning to his life and helped him build lifelong relationships.
Like many Pacific island Peace Corps volunteers, Whistler formed a lifelong love and concern for the people and environments of the islands. He returned as often as possible and invested decades of time and energy to document and conserve plants and people, particularly in Samoa and Tonga. He also became part of a network of former Peace Corps volunteers, many of whom stayed on the islands and supported each other in their efforts to improve their adopted countries. After his tour with the Peace Corps, he moved to Hawaii and worked as an instructor and environmental consultant while steadily working on a doctorate in botany. In 1979, he produced his dissertation: A Vegetation Study of Eastern Samoa.
There are different types of botanists: flora experts, taxonomic specialists, ethnobotanists, anatomists, and ecologists. Whistler was all of these but is best known for his expertise on the flora and ethnobotany of the Samoan islands, and, by extension, the flora and ecology of tropical Pacific islands. His many publications include: Tongan Herbal Medicine (Isle Botanica, 1992), Polynesian Herbal Medicine (National Tropical Botanical Garden, 1992), Plants in Samoan Culture: The Ethnobotany of Samoa (University of Hawai`i Press, 2005), Plants of the Canoe People: An Ethnobotanical Voyage through Polynesia (National Tropical Botanical Garden, 2009), and Samoan Herbal Medicine: O La’au ma Vai Fofo o Samoa (Isle Botanica, 2017).
Whistler worked as a lecturer at the University of Hawai`i (1979-1989), botanist at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG, 1983-1992), biology professor at the University of the South Pacific (2006-2007), and an independent environmental and educational consultant throughout his life after the Peace Corp. He could frequently be found with his nose in herbaria from New Zealand to Fiji to Hawaii, working on distributions of plants. Encountering him in small airports, villages, or forests was a normal occurrence.
Central within Whistler’s career was investing in the training of young Pacific islanders. He encouraged hands-on learning about plants, ecosystems, and traditional ways of using plants, and openly shared what he learned from elder Pacific Islanders. He also encouraged a free exchange of ideas and blending of modern science with ancient traditional knowledge.
The Flora of Samoa was a lifelong project that consumed much of his time but remains incomplete. Samoa contains an estimated 540 flowering plant species. Others, including younger Samoans whom Whistler trained, will now need to finish the good work that he began.
Art Whistler is survived by his son Sean, daughter Kira, and a host of friends and colleagues across the Pacific islands and around the world. Longtime friend and colleague Mark Merlin, PhD, at the University of Hawai`i, wrote (email to M. Blumenthal, April 8, 2020): “After 40 years of collegial exchange and friendship, it is depressing to know how and why Art died. He knew the Samoan and many other Pacific floras better than just about anybody on earth, down to the very last weed and up to the tallest tree. Art could be stubborn, but in the case of his career-long documentation of the Samoan flora, he should have had his way with publication. I hope NTBG publishes it, given how doggedly and carefully he pursued that publication goal for so many years. C’est la vie!”