Wells, Elizabeth F. (Emeritus)
George Washington University
Plant Systematics/Ecology
Beth was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on March 4, 1943, the second of three daughters of William Alwin Fortson and Julia Grimmet Fortson. She was raised on a cotton farm three miles north of town, where the high points of her childhood included country walks with her parents, horseback rides with friends along the Red River levees, and frequent trips to the family fishing and hunting lodge on Cross Lake, about 10 miles away, always looking at the plants. Her father, a dentist with a love of gardening, believed that his daughters should know their local native trees and shrubs, and that they should all receive a strong liberal arts education that included biology and chemistry. Beth’s first paid employment was rounding up cows on horseback for a neighbor when she was 12 years old. Beth graduated from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, in 1965 with a major in chemistry. In November 1965, she married David Marsden Wells of Wilmington, North Carolina, whom she had met while an undergraduate. For three years she taught chemistry laboratories at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, living on Wrightsville Beach, but within the first year realized how much she missed botanizing. She took her first two formal botany courses, plant taxonomy and plant ecology, during the summer of 1966 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, while her husband spent the summer working on his dissertation in Old English. The exciting world of keys, plant classification, and phytography opened to her during C. Ritchie Bell’s course in plant taxonomy, where she collected and identified 200 species. In Albert E. Radford’s course in plant ecology, she trekked over North Carolina from the mountains to the Outer Banks and learned plant communities and more plants. She completed an MA in botany at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1970, producing a thesis on the vascular flora of the 11,000-acre Uwharrie Wildlife Management Area in Montgomery County, North Carolina, under the direction of Albert E. Radford. After a few years of teaching general biology at the University of Richmond, she returned to work toward a PhD degree in Botany at Chapel Hill, producing a dissertation on Heuchera (Saxifragaceae) in eastern North America under the direction of Clifford R. Parks and Max H. Hommersand, which she completed in 1977. She spent the next two years in the laboratory of Bruce A. Bohm, in the botany department of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, working on flavonoids of Heuchera and Mitella, while her husband worked as an editor in Vancouver. Their son, William Fortson Wells, was born in Vancouver in June 1979. In August 1979, she joined the Department of Biological Sciences at the George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and combined an academic career with motherhood, while Will progressed through his education. She has taught courses in field botany, flora of the mid-Atlantic states, plant ecology, plant taxonomy, plant evolution, and medical botany since 1979 at George Washington University. She has worked on a monograph of Heuchera in North America and the vascular flora of several local sites: Huntley Meadows Park, historic Mount Vernon, Fort Belvoir, Plummers Island, and the Dulles Greenway artificial wetland in Loudoun County. Beth is especially interested in native plants of the eastern seaboard states and alien species introduced early in colonial history of North America, and is working on a modern rendering of Gronovius’s 1762 Flora Virginica. Currently, she is collaborating with geologist Richard Tollo of George Washington University on the geobotanical ecology of the Central Appalachians. Beth was elected to membership in the Washington Biologists’ Field Club in April 2000, and was elected to the board of managers for the 2000 to 2002 period.