Obituary: George Richardson Proctor, 1920-2015

The author of the seminal book which has provided an invaluable resource on Cayman’s plant life has passed away. 

American Botanist George Richardson Proctor died on Oct. 12 in New York. He was 95. 

Mr. Proctor was a world authority on the flora of Jamaica, where he had lived since 1949, and best known in Cayman as author of the “Flora of the Cayman Islands,” originally published in 1984. 

Born in Boston, he studied for his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania after the Second World War. Reduced funding at this time led him to take up work as a herbarium assistant at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia in 1946. 

In 1948, a defining event occurred when he was appointed botanist with the Catherwood-Chaplin West Indies Expedition, which took him to Cuba, the Cayman Islands, San Andres y Providencia and mainland Colombia. This experience, plus his early inspiration at the hands of W.R. Maxon of the Smithsonian Institution, who published the young pteridologist’s articles in the American Fern Journal, decided the botanical interests that Mr. Proctor would pursue for the rest of his life in the Caribbean. 

Mr. Maxon had left an unfinished book on the ferns of Jamaica and, after his Caribbean expedition, Mr. Proctor (known as Dick) moved to Jamaica in 1949 to begin two year’s work on the island’s ferns. Mr. Proctor’s move was also influenced by his memory of shovelling snow in his native Boston one winter, where he vowed as a boy of 13 that he would live in the tropics one day. Starting in 1951, he went on to work at the Institute of Jamaica for 29 years, where he was responsible for developing the herbarium and served as head of the Natural History Division. 

In 1983, he became herbarium supervisor at the National Botanic Garden in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and from 1983-1998 was employed in Puerto Rico as a biologist and director of the herbarium at the government’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, San Juan. He remained a consultant botanist at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. 

One of the four leaders in the field of Caribbean taxonomy, along with Enrique Liogier, Richard B. Howard and C. Dennis Adams, Mr. Proctor studied the flora of more than 50 Caribbean islands and collected more than 55,000 specimens from the West Indies and Central and South America. Among his publications are the “Flora of Barbados” (1958), co-authored with E.G.B. Gooding and A.R. Loveless, “Flowering Plants of Jamaica” (1972), co-authored with C.D. Adams and R.W. Read, “Flora of the Cayman Islands” (1984), “Ferns of Jamaica” (1985) and “Ferns of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands” (1989). 

In the 1990s, he also prepared a treatment of the monocotyledons of Puerto Rico. 

Nearly 30 plants are named after Mr. Proctor, including the national tree of the Cayman Islands, Coccothrinax proctorii. 

He was awarded the Musgrave Gold Medal and the Order of Distinction in Jamaica in 1976 for his dedicated work, and in 2004 received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies, to add to his 1978 honorary doctorate from Florida International University. 

In 2006, at the age of 86, Proctor was embroiled in a scandal when a case was brought against him alleging his involvement in a conspiracy to murder his wife and three other people. He was arrested as he was boarding an airplane bound for the U.S., and was held for a month before he was freed on bail in May 2006. After four years of court appearances and continuations, the trial finally took place in January 2010, and Mr. Proctor was convicted on four counts of conspiracy to commit murder. On Feb. 3, 2010, he was sentenced to four years imprisonment on each count, to be served concurrently. In October 2012, he was released from prison due to ill health having served two years and seven months of his sentence, and deported to New York. Mr. Proctor completed the second edition of the “Flora of the Cayman Islands” during his incarceration, and it was published in October 2012. 

Grand Cayman resident and botany enthusiast Joanne Mercille-Ross bought what was likely the last copy of the first edition of Mr. Proctor’s book. She was instrumental in bringing Mr. Proctor to Grand Cayman when she noticed that the first edition required some corrections and updates, and came to know him well. 

She said he “loved life and all that it encompassed, he lived it with flair and in the present with little care for the future, he was what you would call a “bon vivant. 

“He was also a giving man,” she said, “his love of plants was infectious, he gave to botany immensely; there are so many plants that would not be known if it was not for his dedication and love for his field of study. He mentored so many students; he wanted everyone to share his knowledge and enthusiasm of botany by making it come to life with his story telling style and funny anecdotes on their botanical families, ending it with a childish little giggle to any interested person. His legacy to science is without equal, he will be missed by all of his friends around the world.” 

Naturalist Ann Stafford praised Mr. Proctor’s work in cataloging Cayman’s plants in his book. “Many new records found since 1984 and several previously undescribed species were included in the 2012 book, illustrated with color photographs as well as the original black and white drawings, to satisfy the needs of the professional botanist while providing the non-expert and eco-traveler with a field guide,” she said. 

Twenty-eight species and varieties of plants are considered to be endemic meaning that they evolved in the Cayman Islands. One of these is Casearia staffordiae, Cayman Casearia, Family Salicaeae, which Mr. Proctor named after Ms. Stafford when she discovered it by chance in 2001. 

Speaking of the book, she noted, “It is a lasting legacy and great asset for the conservation of Cayman’s native plants and Proctor will be well-remembered in Cayman. I am grateful for having been taught so much by him.” 

Mr. Proctor is buried in his family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Massachusetts. He is survived by five children, 30 grandchildren and five great grandchildren. 

George Proctor, pictured on the Mastic Trail in 2004, with his vasculum, a botanical box used for holding field samples.
George Proctor, pictured on the Mastic Trail in 2004, with his vasculum, a botanical box used for holding field samples.