Professor of Soil Science and Forestry, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1934 to 1969
Sergei Alexander Wilde was born in 1898 in the western part of Moscow to parents of Tartar and Dutch ancestry. His childhood home was about a mile from the Kremlin. His father died when he was four. Young Sergei grew up in a home with a plethora of disparate influences. As Doc describes them in his transparently disguised autobiography, “Dr. Werner’s Facts of Life,” they included: a succession of schools, music lessons, student boarders of a variety of political persuasions including some revolutionary activists, poetry and literature, pleasant times with fellow musicians, and the outdoor pursuits of fishing and exploring along the banks of the Moscow River. He was introduced early to the boreal forest ecosystems he came to love by spending summers on an estate of a friend of the family where paper birch grew in profusion on “worthless wild land.”
Doc graduated from the Imperial Engineering College in Moscow and then became an officer in the Trans-Amurian Horse Artillery. During the course of World War I, he was wounded three times and received several awards for bravery, including the Order of Saint George. As the Bolshevik Revolution engulfed the Russian Empire and the army began the practice of electing its officers, Doc was elected as senior commander of his battery – an honor that he attributed to his part in rescuing the unit’s field kitchen during an earlier retreat.
After an interval of being caught in the ebb and flow of the Revolution, Doc landed in Prague where he became a student in forest engineering, graduating cum laude in 1925. The education included extensive field work and provided an introduction to the laboratory aspects of the science. Work for a former professor in appraising forest stands and soils introduced Doc to an aspect of his field that challenged and fascinated him all of his life. Throughout his wealth of experience, Doc continued to nurture his loves of music, literature, good food and drink, and socializing with friends and colleagues. In 1928, Doc received the degree of Doctor of Technical Science from the University of Prague, received permission to immigrate to the United States, added English to his polyglot array of languages, and arrived at Ellis Island in May 1929.
In that depression-ridden time the United States was far from an easy place to get a job. Doc kept body and soul together working in a stable until a summer appointment with the U.S. Forest Service Lake States Forest Experiment Station at St. Paul, Minnesota materialized. The job took him to an experimental forest in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A succession of similar short-term positions, separated by periods of unemployment, followed until 1934 when Doc joined the Soils Department of the University of Wisconsin.
Employment of the vibrant, exuberant, cosmopolitan Doc Wilde by the Soils Department introduced both a new facet of soil science and a new personality and background in it. Wilde wryly described the department he joined thus: “[W]hen I joined (the department) it had only six professors and about ten graduate students. My professional colleagues were non-drinking, non-swearing fragments of the Victorian era, dedicated primarily to the production of crops. A conversation usually started with alfalfa and invariably culminated with fertilizers, the omega of the discussions.” The process of amalgamation must have been an interesting one!
Doc Wilde was a resident of Wisconsin for 49 years, and his contributions in forestry to the people of Wisconsin are invaluable. In his pioneering effort, he aimed to interpret forest soils as carriers of definite floristic associations, as media for the growth of nursery stock or forest plantations, and as dynamic systems that react to different forms of silvicultural cuttings. His primary aim was to enhance the production of wood without depleting the soils fertility or contaminating the environment. He authored one of the classical and most widely used reference books on forest soils.
Doc Wilde actively participated in the reforestation programs and surveys of forest plantations in Wisconsin. Under his supervision, minimum soil fertility standards for planting important native conifers of Wisconsin were established. His work on the site-soil requirements for successful establishment and development of planted species is acknowledged as a classical research effort.
Doc established a systematic nursery soil fertility management program in Wisconsin, which is widely accepted nationally. He had an appreciation of the holistic nature of plant-soil systems that enabled him to anticipate by more than three decades present-day concerns with toxic chemicals, soil ecology, groundwater quality, and the interrelationships among all of these components.
Doc Wilde educated two generations of students, and over 1,000 students have had the opportunity to take the course in Forest Soils at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he helped them become acquainted with the out-of-doors and to unravel some of nature’s secrets. Popular as a teacher, he drew students from all parts of the world. Many of his students hold leadership positions in public and private institutions concerned with forestry and forest soils. He and his students contributed greatly to the establishment of forest soils as a scientific discipline. Doc’s contribution to forest soils research has been recognized by scientists in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Doc Wilde’s investigations had an enormous impact on the forest economy of the state. Practicing foresters in Wisconsin, managing private and public lands, state and federal forest services, private nurseries, the pulp and paper industry, and owners of Wisconsin’s private woodlots are better off today because of Doc’s insight and approach to sound forest management.
Doc Wilde’s publications are the rich legacy he left for the people of Wisconsin. His major publications include: Forest Soils and Forest Growth (1946), Soils of Wisconsin in Relation to Silviculture (1949), Forest Soils: Their Properties and Their Relation to Silviculture (1958); Analysis of Soil and Plants for Foresters and Horticulturists (1955), Soil and Plant Analyses for Tree Culture (1964, 1972, 1979), Growth of Wisconsin Coniferous Plantations in Relation to Soils (1965), Mycorrhizae: Their Role in Tree Nutrition and Timber Production (1968), Tree Spacing in Forest Plantations as Related to Soils and Revenue (1968), and Woodlands of Wisconsin (1976).
A pioneer in the field of forest soils research, Doc Wilde carried out important studies on soils, woody-plant nutrition, tree-mycorrhiza relationships and reforestation. He authored numerous books and over 200 scientific papers.
Doc Wilde was a poet, novelist, and translator as well as a scientist who won honors from the Czechoslovak Agricultural Academy in Prague, was elected honorary member of the Society of Finnish Foresters, was a distinguished guest at the University of Helsinki, and was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy and the Soil Science Society of America. He was also given the Distinguished Service Award from the Wisconsin-Michigan Section of the American Society of Foresters. In 1980, Doc Wilde received Certificates of Appreciation from the USDA Forest Service and the Canadian Forest Service at the North American Nurseryman’s Workshop in Syracuse, New York. These certificates recognized his many years of fine service to the forestry profession through teaching, scientific and popular publications, and invaluable technical counsel.
Doc’s ingenuity and adaptability proved equal to the task. As part of the memorial service on August 12, 1981 paying tribute to this complex man, Garth Voigt, a graduate student of Wilde’s in the early 1950s gave a review of how he experienced Doc. The excerpts quoted below draw together eloquently the many strands of a full life.
“He was, in the final analysis, a very private person who was not easy to know. Seldom were his inner thoughts revealed to anyone although disappointments expressed during his later days indicate that there had been goals and expectations. His inner privacy was to a large degree concealed by his complexity which, I believe, stemmed from his interest in and zest for life. Doc’s enthusiasm for living was almost boundless. During the brief years that I was closely associated with him, he was variously immersed in horseback riding, sailing, hunting ducks and upland game birds, fishing, chess, duplicate bridge, woodcarving, woodworking, pen-and-ink sketching, water-color and oil painting, and, of course, music. The noon-hour halls of the Soils Building were frequently graced with the sounds of the classics generated in Doc’s office by quartets, trios, or duos that he assembled.
On other occasions, when the spirit moved him, he would spontaneously burst into a passage from some obscure German opera. It was seldom clear what triggered these a capella arias but they were frequently delivered when he arose from his desk to rummage through the sand-filled ash trays for the longest snuffed-out cigarette he could find or to prepare a fresh pot of tea, which he consumed in great quantities.
“Doc was a voracious reader and could have very easily sustained a daily book-review column for the local newspaper. He read books of all kinds but returned regularly to the classic works. In all his artistic pursuits, his umbilical cord to Europe was never severed. He received sustenance from European music, art, and literature all his life. This is not to suggest that American efforts were ignored. Many American writers and a few American artists attracted and held his attention from time-to-time but there was never any doubt in his mind concerning the absolute superiority in all respects of the European masters over American composers.
“Doc’s professional life was influenced strongly by his knowledge of European soils and silviculture, by his association at the University of Wisconsin with Emil Truog and Aldo Leopold, and by his day-today contacts with students and colleagues. He watched with more than paternal interest as his students returned from their scholastic struggles and when he saw application to a problem of current interest, he struggled with them. Usually he did more reading on the subject than even the best of students. Doc never separated his professional from his personal life. He pursued with the same unbridled gusto whatever the goal. Life was life—to be lived to the brim. Colleagues, students, and friends were nearly always woven into the tapestry of his life regardless of the time that it happened to be or of previous plans. He was impetuous, persuasive, and very hard to refuse and, as a result what was known as the Clear Lake Field Station frequently resembled the Rathskeller or O’Hare Airport. These mixtures produced lively encounters and long evenings. And at the center of each vortex was the Professor!
“My particular association with him spanned a particular segment when his star was in the ascendancy. This was a period capped with tragedy. He was promoted to full professor (though he had never considered himself anything else). His first textbook, published by Chronica Botanica, was well received and he was already planning the second and the third. His relationships with the Wisconsin Conservation Department were generally smooth and expanding. His regular production of research reports was attracting many good students and his position of leadership in the field of forest soils was rapidly gaining recognition. The Soils Department was flourishing and Doc was making a strong contribution to this increase in stature. Those were the triumphs. The tragedy was the death of his wife, Larissa, his ‘lodestar in the voyage across the stormy sea of life.’
“His enthusiasm and sensitivity for new ideas and for modifying and revising older accepted principles, coupled with his well-developed sense of opportunism, frequently took him (and us) into new and uncharted regions of forest soil science … Professionally, the soil ecosystem was the center of his universe and his concern with the significance of nursery practices for future forests was with him until his death.”
Posthumously, Doc was awarded the Certification of Appreciation for his outstanding contribution to the preservation and management of Wisconsin’s natural resources by the Soil Conservation Society of America. He was also inducted into the Wisconsin Forestry Hall of Fame in September 1987 and the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in April 1994.
Doc Wilde’s passing marked the end of an era of pioneering research and teaching in the field of forest soil science. His professional skills and colorful demeanor stimulated and accelerated the pursuit of knowledge. Though no longer with us, some of Doc’s messages to his graduate students still ring true today: Remember: everything has a limit, except ignorance. Polish your thesis so it will begin to reflect the ideas. Try to imitate the Chinese: they use symbols for ideas, not for words. Never use big words: big words name little things. All big things have little names: life & death, peace & war, day & night, hope, love, home. Learn to use little words in a big way; it is hard to do, but they say what you mean. When you don’t know what you mean, use big words; they often fool little people. Do the hardest work of your whole day before breakfast – getting up. And remember the bed is not the only perfect climate. Either you get the results, or you’ll get the consequences. You read just enough to keep yourself misinformed. If you have no capacity for original thinking, learn how to plagiarize. Try to steal what has been stolen, using Reader’s Digest for style and inspiration. If you insist smoking while performing ether extractions, tell me how to dispose your ashes. One of the tragedies of graduate work is the murder of a beautiful theory by a brutal gang of facts, as was claimed by La Rochefoucauld.