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Piper named to distinguished chair honoring pioneering woman botanist

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Jon K. Piper, Bethel College professor of biology, has been appointed to the Katherine Esau Distinguished Chair in Plant Sciences. Barry Bartel, president of Bethel College, will officially bestow the honor on Piper in a commemorative ceremony Nov. 14.

The distinguished chair endowment was funded by a gift from the Katherine Esau estate and will support the salary of an outstanding scholar and teacher in the biology department.

Esau, an international expert on plant anatomy, was born in the Ukraine and with her family fled to Germany during the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1922, they emigrated to Reedley, Calif. Esau earned her Ph.D. in 1932 from the University of California-Berkeley. She went on to teach at the University of California-Davis, first as an instructor and later as professor of botany. In 1963, she began teaching at the University of California-Santa Barbara. She remained actively engaged in research for 24 more years.

In addition to authoring six textbooks, Esau was a renowned scholar, president of the Botanical Society of America, recipient of the National Medal of Science and, by all accounts, an outstanding teacher. She did all this at a time when women university faculty in general, let alone in science, were rare.

Although Esau never attended a Mennonite school, she felt strong ties to Mennonite higher education, and when she died in 1997 at the age of 99, she left a large estate gift to Bethel College.

Being a recipient of the Katherine Esau Chair acknowledges Piper’s distinguished record as both a scholar and teacher in biology, said Brad Born, Bethel College vice president for academic affairs.

“Jon’s recent success in securing a large NSF [National Science Foundation] grant to fund student scholarships in the sciences and mathematics is a vivid illustration of his outstanding performance in service to his profession, the college and especially to student learning,” Born said. “On a smaller scale than that $257,000 grant, Jon has landed three successive Kingsbury Family Foundation awards to support research – including student research – on prairie restoration.”

In addition to securing grants and conducting research, Piper has published extensively in the areas of forest and grassland ecology and in the emerging field of natural systems agriculture.

“Jon co-authored the 1992 book Farming in Nature’s Image: An Ecological Approach and has authored 21 refereed journal articles, 12 book chapters and numerous other conference proceedings and book reviews,” said Born. “While sustaining that active, productive life of scholarship, Jon has also been a devoted teacher. His students express special appreciation for his labs and field trips and more general praise for his dedication to them and to their success.”

Piper received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, and earned a doctoral degree in botany from Washington State University. He has taught biology at Bethel College since 1997 and was granted full professorship in 2003. He currently chairs the department.

“As a faculty leader, Jon has modeled how to be both a strong, passionate advocate for his own discipline and division and a responsible caretaker for the health of the entire faculty, the broader curriculum and the college,” added Born.

Piper said he appreciates the contribution Esau made to his field of study. “For decades, Katherine Esau’s plant anatomy text was ‘the bible’ for all graduate programs in plant sciences. I expect this book is sitting on the shelf of nearly every professional botanist. I still refer to my copy from time to time.

“Dr. Esau’s recognition and honoring of Bethel’s biology program with an endowed chair provides yet another affirmation from outside the institution of Bethel’s strong tradition of academic excellence,” Piper added. “I feel a responsibility for carrying on the legacy established by some truly outstanding biologists such as Dwight Platt and Jacob Doell, who went before me.”

The Nov. 14 ceremony naming Piper the Katherine Esau Distinguished Professor of Plant Sciences will take place at 4 p.m. in the chapel of the Bethel College Administration Building with a reception following. Both are open to the public.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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