JARS v56n3 - In Memoriam: John Layton Rouse

In Memoriam: John Layton Rouse
Lyn Craven

Physicists, biologists, financiers and horticulturalists were among those gathered in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, on Wednesday 20 March 2002 to give thanks for the life of John Rouse and extend their sympathy to his family. Such was the diversity of his interests and achievements that John could well be said to have simultaneously led several full lives without appearing to stretch himself.

John was born on 21 April 1925 and grew up in Melbourne. He left school in 1943 and joined the Royal Australian Air Force where he was given training in the early radar technology of the time and, at the age of 18, was posted to a radar unit in north Queensland. Not content with only doing his bit in the armed forces, in his spare time John completed the three years of a university mathematics degree so that upon discharge at the end of the war he was able to rapidly obtain his Honours degree. His strong interest in physical matters led him to complete a Master of Science degree in 1952.

Physics then dominated his academic work, and John took the lead in the team that designed and built the world's first Variable Energy Cyclotron. His degree of Doctor of Philosophy was awarded in 1957 and the then Dr. Rouse joined the permanent staff of the Physics School of the University of Melbourne. John remained in physics until his retirement. He was an outstanding academic and a good teacher and respected supervisor of graduate students. John followed his father in becoming a trustee of the Baker Foundation, a philanthropic foundation that gives significant support to medical research at the University of Melbourne. (Such was his dedication to science and the advancement of knowledge that John gave his body for medical research.) John was influential in having the Baker Foundation broaden its scope into other biological areas and the Foundation is now a primary supporter of the Australian Research Centre for Urban Ecology, a centre that John played a key role in establishing.

His expertise in horticulture and science fitted him well for becoming a trustee of the Maud Gibson Gardens Trust, a trust which supports activities at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. In the 1960s John developed a particular interest in the genus Rhododendron and he became a specialist in sect. Vireya species, which thrived in his Toorak garden. Given his enquiring mind, perhaps it was inevitable that his passion for rhododendrons would become entwined with his curiosity. He kept meticulous records of the numerous experiments that he conducted into seed germination, potting media, hybridisation, grafting compatibility, and so on. His imaginative propagation units, perhaps best described as high-tech versions of Wardian Cases, have been adopted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, where they are known as "Rouse Houses." John's Order of Australia award was made in recognition of his contribution to horticulture.

John's personal academic world of physical science in the School of Physics underwent a metamorphosis as a result of his exposure to the intricate, and often microscopic, structures found in plants and emerged as the Botanical Physics unit. In particular, he investigated phyllotaxis, the spatial arrangement of leaves and floral organs, and their initiation and growth on the primordium. Such studies have relevance to crystallography and the development of new materials for use in semiconductors, etc.

The research collaborations that John developed with biologists in the university's Botany School were particularly productive. The team's investigations into pollen tube growth and fertilisation were conducted upon John's extensive collection of potted vireyas and resulted in an impressive stream of published papers. While I have not enquired about John's publications in physics and mathematics, I am sure he would have been similarly responsible in publishing the results of his work. It is his extraordinarily prolific writing in the fields of horticulture and biology that is of concern to us rhododendrophiles. John was the sole or co-author of over seventy articles involving rhododendrons, over thirty of which are meritorious for their impact in their respective disciplines, mainly in the field of reproductive biology but ranging from grafting and seed raising studies to phyllotaxis.

John was a philanthropist in his own right, contributing funds to provide study facilities for physics students at the University of Melbourne and to support a research project on Vireya rhododendrons.

While this brief sketch of the life of John has mentioned his professional and horticultural activities, there was even more to the man than this. John was a great family man; his wife, Clare, and their four children, and their grandchildren, were very dear to him. Family skiing and camping trips, Royal Tennis and Lawn Tennis, music, and reading were some of the other important aspects of his private life.

John's generosity in sharing the results of his Vireya hybridising freely around the world, in giving cuttings from his plants to fellow enthusiasts, in suffering frequent visitors who came to learn about rhododendrons are evidence of the person within. His respect for others, friendliness, sense of humour, and honesty in discussions are qualities he demonstrated consistently. Visits to Melbourne were never complete without a visit to John Rouse; one came away with more than just scions of interesting plants.

Towards the end of his life, John was suffering from two serious conditions, Parkinson's disease and myelodysplasia, both of which he managed with courage and good humour. He never showed any bitterness at his grim situation and continued as long as he was physically capable in making observations and measurements of phyllotaxis, using the equipment he had constructed in his own well-equipped workshop. He died on 13 March 2002 after being in hospital for about a week.

His infectious smile, his incredibly twinkling eyes, and the goodwill that manifestly emanated from him, will be fondly remembered by his friends whenever they are out among Vireya rhododendrons.