Orin A. Stevens was born on a farm in Kansas in 1885, where he began his lifelong habit of observing birds and bees and plants. His interest in nature took an academic turn when he picked up his older sister’s botany textbook. Following high school, he entered Kansas State, and upon graduating with a degree in Agriculture, he was appointed as an instructor of Botany.
Two years later, the 23-year-old moved to North Dakota to work as a seed analyst in the newly created Seed Laboratory. He was also hired to teach botany at the North Dakota Agricultural College in the fall of 1909 – the first of 67 years he would teach at the school that eventually became NDSU.
Stevens devoted his life to the study of plants, bees, wasps, and birds. A tireless observer, he “discovered” dozens of plant and insect species. Of the huge collections he amassed, one containing 12,000 bees and wasps is now housed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In fact, scientists around the world so respected Stevens that they began naming species after him.
Every summer, Stevens traveled the state to observe and collect specimens. He wrote the book on North Dakota plants. First published in 1950, the Handbook of North Dakota Plants has not lost its usefulness.
Ever vigilant in searching for new species, Stevens one day found a non-native plant growing along a Fargo street in 1909. After studying it, he became one of the first to warn of the invasive weed many North Dakotans have come to despise – leafy spurge. As early as 1919 he wrote, “(leafy spurge) seems to spread freely from the roots and should be watched closely.”
O.A. Stevens’ interests also included ornithology. His “North Dakota Bird Notes” were published by the Fargo Forum, and North and South Dakota Horticulture magazine published some 250 articles he wrote on birds.
Even after he officially retired, he kept on working. When his colleagues threw a surprise party for his 80th birthday, they could barely coax him out of the greenhouse to participate
NDSU built a new facility for the Sciences in the 1960s and named it Stevens Hall. The O. A. Stevens Memorial Scholarship is awarded annually to biology majors on the basis of academic achievement and character as exemplified by the distinguished botanist.
Dr. O.A. Stevens served NDSU and the State of North Dakota from 1909 to 1976. He passed away on this date in 1979 at the age of 93.
Dakota Datebook by Merry Helm
Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1966) 505,