Ralph E. Cleland was born on October 20, 1892 in Le Claire, Iowa. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Classics and Botany during his undergraduate years, and stayed there to receive a Ph.D in Botany in 1919. Following service in the Army, he held a teaching position at Goucher College in Baltimore until 1938. It was then that he came to Indiana University as head of the Botany department, becoming dean of the Graduate School in 1950.
Dr. Cleland once remarked that he owed a great deal to IU, but a more accurate statement might be that IU owes a great deal more to him. As a teacher, administrator and research worker, he brought rare distinction and prestige to the university. A man of unimpeachable integrity, a true scholar, a moral gentleman in every way, and a man of great intelligence, it was a privilege for IU to have been associated with him.
A truly dedicated teacher at heart, Dr. Cleland considered it a privilege to instruct at all levels of education. While serving as both a chairman and a dean, he continued to find time to offer his course in Cytology every year. After his mandatory retirement at the age of 70, he still continued to give his course by popular demand for several years. Students remember his course as one of the most demanding as well as one of the most intellectually satisfying in their university experience. As a young student himself, he made the critical observations on the behavior and structure of chromosomes that led to an understanding of the unorthodox genetic mechanism in Oenothera; thus securing his position in the history of science. He remained active in research throughout his career, and published a book, Oenothera, Cytogenetics and Evolution, in 1971.
But then, recognition of the high quality of his scholarship came early in Dr. Cleland's life; as a relatively young man he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his honors were the first John F. Lewis Award of the American Philosophical Society, a certificate of merit from the Botanical Society of American, and a Guggenheim Fellowship which he spent in study abroad. He was elected a corresponding member of the German Botanical Society, the Korean Botanical Society, and the Japanese Genetics Society. Honorary degrees were awarded to him by Hanover College, the University of Pennsylvania, and of course, Indiana University.
In the course of a long career, Dr. Cleland served as President of the Botanical Society of America, the Genetics Society of America, the American Society of Naturalists, the Indiana Academy of Sciences and was the first head of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. He was Vice President of the International Union of Biological Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While dean of IU's Graduate School, he was an officer in the Association of Graduate Schools and was chairman of the Division of Biology and Agriculture of the National Research Council for a number of years. Despite his various duties, he still found time to serve in the demanding post as Editor of the American Joural of Botany and for years he edited a section of Biological Abstracts. Upon retirement from his other administrative posts, he served as the director of the Aerospace Research Application Center at IU.
Dr. Ralph E. Cleland died at his desk on June 11th, 1971. His laboratory was converted to a seminar room at his wife's request and named in his honor.