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Walter Liese, Germany

If ever Germany was to have an ambassador at large for forestry, and for bamboo in particular, Prof. Walter Liese would eminently qualify for the post. His international assignments have carried him far and wide – from the lowlands of Bangladesh to the high mountains of Chile; from the humid forests of Indonesia and Vietnam to the arid zones of Nigeria and Tanzania; from the near shores of Portugal to the far shores of the Philippines. In his career as a wood biologist and forestry expert, which spans nearly five decades, Prof. Liese has stretched his faculties to their limits to become an institution in himself.

Walter Liese was born in Berlinon31 January 1926, when the Weimar Republic was eight years old and appeared stable and prosperous. His childhood and adolescent years were spent in Eberswalde, a small town south of Berlin where his father was Professor of Forest Botany. By the time he was seven years old, the Weimar Republic had collapsed and Adolf Hitler was in control of Germany. Like all other able-bodied German youth, Walter Liese was also drafted into war service at the age of 18.

At the end of the military service, Walter Liese pursued his studies. He chose forestry as his main subject, probably influenced by his childhood images of lush forests near Eberswalde. He studied forestry from 1946 to 1950, first in Freiburg in the Black Forest and then in Hann Münden at the Forest Faculty, University of Göttingen. In 1951 he graduated and began his career with a one-year study on root physiology at the Forest Research Institute in Düsseldorf.

The year 1951 added another dimension in the history of botanical studies in Germany. Although palms and bamboos were botanically known through their earlier descriptions by Linné, all palms were classified as bamboos. Their structural characteristics came to be examined only much later, through the efforts of scientists like Hugo von Mohl (1845), Schwendener (1874), de Bary (1877), Strasburger (1891), Haberlandt (1924), and Solereder and Meyer (1928). Then, for some inexplicable reason, the anatomies of bamboos and palms were much neglected. It was only in 1951 that interest in these areas was revived in earnest. As destiny would have it, the seeds for this revival were sown through a chance meeting under favorable circumstances.

In April 1951, Walter Liese had started working as a research scientist at the Forest Research Institute in Lintorf, near Düsseldorf. Dr Franz Erich Eidmann, then Head of the Institute, kindled Liese’s interest in bamboo. The discussion centered on the suitability of culms as pit props in coal mines. Liese, motivated by Dr Eidmann’s enthusiasm, carried out a series of experiments on the properties of bamboo for its use in mines.

Liese also had contacts with Prof. Bodo von Borries of the Institute of Higher Microscopy in Düsseldorf, who was part of the team that developed the electron microscope. The apparatus was still a novelty then and awaiting newer applications. Liese made good use of the transmission electron microscope to study the structure of bamboo, the “new” material, and produced in 1951 the first electron micrographs on the fine structural details of the cell walls of bamboo fibers. This was followed in 1953, while working at the Institute of Forest Botany, University of Freiburg, by another series on structures in the cell walls in bamboo. These achievements brought both the researcher and the research subject into the limelight.

Liese’s six-year sojourn (1953-59) at the University of Freiburg, where he had once been a student of forestry, launched his outstanding career as a wood biologist and bamboo scientist. The study of anatomical structure using advanced microscopy and other techniques, which began there as a curiosity that developed out of a chance opportunity, became a life-time passion.

The latter half of the 1950s marked the beginning of Walter Liese’s presence in the international arena. Before joining the University of Freiburg, he had spent one year working in the wood preservation industry in Mannheim. This experience in wood preservation came of use in 1957, when Liese was contracted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to India to study and propose an impregnation method to preserve bamboo from deterioration, and in 1958 to work on wood preservation in Indonesia. In 1958, barely eight years after his graduation, Liese was already a visiting scientist to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Melbourne, Australia. In 1962, while working at the Institute of Forest Botany, University of Munich, he was serving as a visiting scientist at the prestigious Harvard University in the United States. Later, when his fame as a top-order forestry expert spread, many other universities – Berkeley University of the United States, Canterbury University of New Zealand, Nanjing Forestry University of China, Universidad Austral of Chile and National University of Taiwan-China — followed suit.

Although his primary vocation as a wood biologist and forest botanist prompted Liese to move to Hamburg in 1963, taking up the position of Professor of Wood Science at Hamburg University, bamboo remained a source of fascination for him. His enthusiasm on the subject attracted several young scientists, and some of them became his research partners. During the Freiburg years, Prof. Liese carried out seminal work on the histometry of the cell elements in various bamboos, with special emphasis on tissue composition. The Munich years also saw several studies being carried out on bamboo, not only on anatomy but also on the permeation properties of bamboo culms.

Prof. Liese’s research on bamboo anatomy peaked during the Hamburg years (1963-91) though he still continues to work as Professor emeritus. The first stimulus came from his association with Dr Dietger Grosser, who had the aptitude and patience to search for even the most minute details in anatomical studies. Together they presented an impressive array of histological studies on bamboo — the characterization of the four basic vascular bundle structures, and their relation to taxonomical classification; variability of fibre lengths in bamboos; distribution of vascular bundles and the cell types in bamboo culms etc. Prof. Liese’s joint work with Prof. Narayan Parameswaran added a competitive depth to bamboo research. Their initial research covered the fine structure of cell walls, especially of fibres and parenchyma cells. This was followed by studies on the occurrence of warty structures in certain bamboo species, fine structure of protoxylem elements, and ultra-structural aspects of bamboo cells, culms etc. Much of this research remains to date the most important contribution to the subject. In between and after these fruitful joint research associations, Prof. Liese has made several forays on his own and published research papers of excellence.

Although enamored by the lure of bamboo, Prof. Walter Liese never allowed that to affect his other academic interests — wood biology, wood pathology and wood protection. He has delivered lectures in over 50 countries on these subjects, and has carried out research on a number of related areas such as: wood and bark anatomies; fine structure of wood; wood quality; wound reactions in trees and monocotyledons; micromorphology of wood degradation; physiology and enzymology of wood fungi; and promotion of wood utilization in developing countries. A prolific writer, Prof. Liese has to his credit well over 400 scientific papers (70 of which are on bamboo and 20 on palms, mainly co-authored by Gudrun Weiner). He has also guided 70 diploma students and 35 doctoral students.

Apart from teaching at the Hamburg University, Prof. Liese also served as the Director of the Institute for Wood Biology and Wood Protection, and from time to time as the Executive Director of the Federal Research Centre for Forestry and Forest Products. During the Hamburg years, and after his official retirement in 1991, he lent his expertise to several international and national entities, including: the FAO Advisory Committee on Forestry Education (1966-90); the International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO — as President during 1977-1981 and in various other capacities from 1968 to 1995); the FAO/IUFRO Committee on Bibliography and Terminology (1964-73); the International Academy of Wood Science (as Fellow in 1966 and as Vice President during 1969-72); EUROSILVA, the European Research Cooperation on Tree Physiology (as Chairman of the Joint Steering Committee during 1988-93 and as Vice Chairman in 1994); Deutsche Gesellschaft für Holzforschung (as Chairman for Wood Protection during 1972-76); the Research Advisory Board of the Forest Research Institute, Malaysia (1989-90); etc.

Prof. Liese was instrumental in getting the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) of Canada interested in bamboo, and played an important part in the creation of the International Network for Bamboo and Rattan (INBAR). He is often referred to as the “grandfather of INBAR”.

During his IUFRO presidency Prof. Liese strongly advocated and spearheaded the involvement of developing countries in the organization, and helped focus IUFRO’s activities more on issues of tropical forestry. He was instrumental in initiating the call for action on tropical forestry, which later developed into the IUFRO Special Programme for Developing Countries. It was also during his presidency that IUFRO turned truly international.

International recognition of Prof. Liese’s expertise in his chosen fields was never found wanting. He was accorded honorary memberships of the Philippine Forest Research Society, Finland Society of Forestry, International Association of Wood Anatomists, Indian Academy of Wood Science, Society of American Foresters, l’Académie d’Agriculture of France, IUFRO, Chinese Bamboo Association, Academia Italiana di Science Forestate, German Society for Wood Research, Polish Academy of Science and the European Bamboo Society, amongst others. In appreciation of his academic brilliance, Prof. Liese was awarded five honorary doctorates, including ones from the University of Sopron, Hungary; University of Zvolen,Czech Republic; University of Istanbul,Turkey; University of Poznan and University of Ljubljana, Slovenia. He also received numerous medals of merit for his achievements in forestry.

Prof. Liese is very highly regarded in Asian countries, especially China andIndia, not only for his research contributions but also for helping Asian scientists.
Although he retired from official engagements in 1991, Prof. Liese continues to contribute to the world of forestry with his profound knowledge and extensive experience.

Since then, 10 years have passed with about 60 additional bamboo papers and a book ” Bamboo Preservation Compendium” with S. Kumar as INBAR/CIBART Techn. Rep. 22, 231 pp., many bamboo lectures and bamboo consultancies in Ethiopia, Costa Rica, Colombia, China, Thailand, Northeast India, among other activities

The World Bamboo Organization is extremely fortunate to have Prof. Liese as a member of its Honorary Council. When he heard of the proposed 8th World Bamboo Congress in Thailand, he heartily sent emails of support and offered to help. He worked as Chairman of the WBC Paper Review Panel, and will be present to make an oral presentation entitled, Bamboo as CO2-Sink—Fact or Fiction ?, as well as Chair the Session entitled: In Partnership for a Better World. We all can say with genuine sentiment to a man whose work has led to a better understanding of bamboo. Fortunately, Walter Liese is here with us today; alive and well and a true bamboo pioneer.