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Millie Thompson's Obituary
by Howard Berg

Millie Thompson, our ABS member who, in partnership with her husband Edward, became an internationally recognized begonia expert, passed away on December 10 from heart failure. Millie was 81 years old. Millie was known for her meticulous research and tireless devotion to making hard to find information about begonias available to botanists and horticulturists around the world. Millie and Ed received the Eva Kenworthy Gray Award for contributing original material toward helping the rank and file members further their study of begonias in 1977 and the Herbert P. Dyckman Service Award presented to a member who has rendered long-term or very outstanding service for the American Begonia Society in 1988. She was predeceased by her husband Edward and is survived by her sons Donald of Massachusetts and Robert who resides in San Antonio, Florida.

Mildred Lewis was born in Queens, New York on March 17, 1927 to Rose and Arthur Lewis. Her father was a plumber. As Millie’s son Donald said, “It was inevitable that she become a plumber growing up in the Lewis family." Millie met Edward Thompson who was a plumber from Long Island, New York and married him. Millie joined Ed in building their plumbing business in Southampton, New York.

Millie and Ed came to the attention of ABS in September, 1970, at the Fifth Eastern Begonia Convention in Westbury, Long Island when she won “Best in Show” for a wonderfully grown B. foliosa. As Millie remembered the event in an email earlier this year to Jack Golding, “I have known you and Dottie since 1971 when Ed and I brought our first begonia, B. foliosa, to a show that your branch was having. We walked in and looked at all the beautiful plants and were going to leave but you and Murray Morrison brought us back in with our plant. Nice memories!” At the Sixth Eastern Begonia Convention in Boston in 1971, Millie and Ed won Best in Show, Sweepstakes and five division awards.

Millie met Jack Golding at these conventions and formed a working relationship with Jack and Carrie Karegeannes who were embarking on research projects on begonia species. Millie’s early research efforts resulted in a number of pamphlets about begonias which were incorporated in three loose-leaf notebooks. Academic botanists recognized her talent, and she was able to enlist them in her research efforts. By 1977 the second edition of three loose leaf volumes of The Thompson Begonia Guide was reviewed by Arnoldia, a publication of the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. The review addressed the unique character and importance of the Guide.

“Because of its significance to both horticulturists and botanists, 'he Thompson Begonia Guide is being reviewed by a representative of each group. Corliss Engle, a Friend of the Arnold Arboretum, is an experienced amateur grower and past President of the Buxton Branch of the American Begonia Society. Bernice G. Schubert, a member of the staff of the Arnold Arboretum, is Curator and Senior Lecturer on Biology, with a special interest in Begoniaceae.”

While Corliss Engle addressed the wealth of cultural information of interest to the growers of begonias, Bernice Schubert extolled the value of the information in the Guide to botanists, "The Thompson Begonia Guide is a very impressive, though unorthodox, document assembled with good taste and complete dedication by the Thompsons, who consider themselves hobbyist-growers and who have other unrelated, full-time careers. Its chief interest, for botanists, is the clearly presented information concerning those members of the Begoniaceae that are in cultivation. This material is not so easily available in as great detail anywhere else to my knowledge.”

Bernice Schubert ended her review with the hope that the three volumes be published in “a single volume real book.” In 1981 Begonias, the Complete Reference Guide was published and became and has remained a standard reference work for horticulturists and botanists. Millie who was very protective of her work has specified in her will that no changes can ever be made to her book.

In addition to her research efforts, Ed and Millie were outstanding growers. Southampton College near their home had a greenhouse which Ed and Millie rebuilt for their “begonia museum.” Those of us who were fortunate enough to visit the “begonia museum” saw hundreds of perfectly grown begonias beautifully displayed. The greenhouse was vandalized in an incident that was devastating to the Thompsons, which caused them to retreat from their begonia activities which at the time was dominating their lives. Their begonia collection was donated to the New York Botanical Garden and their extensive records were donated to the Fort Worth Botanical Garden. Although she had reduced her research and growing activities, Millie kept in touch with many ABS members who valued her friendship and extensive knowledge. Millie had recently resumed her begonia research activities and has written articles and organized her slides into programs for branches to use.

Millie, in her strong partnership with Ed, produced a unique contribution to the horticultural and scientific literature of Begoniaceae that will last for centuries as scientific literature is prone to do. In the meantime, we are blessed to have known her and ABS will miss her.

The Arnoldia Review is available at:
http://arnoldia.arboretum.harvard.edu/pdf/articles/1029.pdf

 


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