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  • Remembering Douglas Ernest Yen (20 March 1924–7 July 2023)
  • Patrick V. Kirch

Douglas E. Yen passed away peacefully at the age of 99, in Clovis, California. He was one of the most influential ethnobotanists and archaeobotanists of the Pacific and Asia region, even though his becoming an ethnobotanist was not planned but rather "accidental" in nature. I offer this reflection on Doug's life from the perspective of one who was mentored by him at an early age, then became a collaborating colleague, as well as a life-long friend. In his final years we kept in touch regularly by phone and I had the pleasure of seeing him from time to time in California and Hawai'i.

Doug was born in Wellington, New Zealand, to Lily and Ernest Hai Yen, who owned a Chinese import store. Growing up, Doug played field hockey, tennis, and table tennis very competitively in school; he continued playing tennis into his 60s and [End Page 140] table tennis into his 80s. As a child, Doug attended St. Mark's Church School, then Wellington College (what we would call a high school), from which he graduated in 1942. Later that year he matriculated at Victoria College (then the University of New Zealand), but transferred to Massey College (now known as Massey University of New Zealand) in 1944, because he wanted to focus on agricultural science. Massey College, in Palmerston North, was New Zealand's primary center for teaching and research in agriculture. Doug received his Bachelor's degree in Agricultural Science in 1946 and a Master's degree in the same field the following year.

Upon seeing a photograph of a lovely young woman at his sister's house, he asked to be introduced. Her name was Nancy Wah Lee. She and her sister Alice had been caught in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion on December 7, 1941. The sisters managed to flee the Japanese army during the war by means of a harrowing journey that took them across China and over the Himalayas to India, after which they made their way to New Zealand to join relatives. Doug and Nancy were married on April 6, 1949, and remained devoted life partners.

In 1948, Doug was appointed to the position of Plant Breeder in the Crop Research Division of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) located in Lincoln, New Zealand. He was promoted in 1953 to Officer-in-charge of the Vegetable Breeding Station, Crop Research Division, DSIR, in Otara, near Auckland, a post that he continued to hold until 1966, when he relocated to Honolulu's Bishop Museum in Hawai'i. During the period at the Otara station, Doug began to come into his own as a researcher, publishing papers on such topics as "Seed variation in pea rouges" (1954, in New Zealand Journal of Science and Technology 36: 117–121) and "Selection of cabbage strains for New Zealand" (1956, in New Zealand Commercial Grower). It was also during this period that he began a long-term interest in the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), known to the Māori people of New Zealand as kumara, their most important traditional crop.

Realizing that old Māori varieties of kumara as well as traditional knowledge of their names and properties were disappearing, in 1954 Doug began a program of visiting rural Māori communities to collect sweet potato material, bringing this back to the Otara station for planting in a living collection. In time this would become the most comprehensive collection of Ipomoea batatas in the world; eventually much of the collection would be transferred to Japan, where it continues to be curated at the Institute of Crop Science, Tsukuba, and at Kyushu Agricultural Research Center.

While Doug's early efforts at sweet potato collection were simply rooted in his desire to preserve the old varieties with their potential to breed better commercial hybrids, his formidable intellect soon had him grasping at larger questions. There had been considerable academic debate as to the origins of the sweet potato and its dispersal into the Pacific, some scholars arguing for a South American origin, others for an African origin. Consulting with faculty at the...