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Swiss Orchid Foundation
at the Herbarium Jany Renz

Dr. Christoph Noelpp
St. Jakobs-Strasse 30
4002 Basel

© 2015 Swiss Orchid Foundation

Botanical Institute
University of Basel

Dr. Jany Renz

Dr. Jany Renz (1907-1999)


Dr. Phillip Cribb, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

The orchid world has lost one of its longest serving and most eminent taxonomists, Dr Jany Renz of Basel, Switzerland, who died peacefully after a short illness on 10th August 1999.

Jany Renz was born on 25 June 1907 in Corfu, Greece, where he spent the early years of his life. At the beginning of the First World War his family moved to Castel San Pietro in the Tessin in Switzerland. There he and his older brother, Otto, spent their childhood and were educated at home by their mother. They went to secondary school in eastern Switzerland when their parents returned to Greece at the end of the war. Following matriculation Jany spent two years in Greece where he undertook his earliest botanical studies. He recently showed me his first orchid collection, a pressed specimen of Epipactis microphylla from Greece.

He studied chemistry in Munich, Germany, under Professor Wieland, later a Nobel Prize-winner. His studies were frequently interrupted by periods in Greece, and by trips to North Africa and the Middle East studying and collecting orchids. In 1936 he started work as a chemist in the research group of Professor Arthur Stoll in what was then Sandoz AG in Basel. In 1956, on the retirement of Professor Stoll from the active management of the research team, he took over the management of the pharmaceutical chemical research and manufacturing at Sandoz. He retired in 1971 from Sandoz and dedicated his time thereafter to the study of orchids.

As a chemist he was principally interested in natural products and he was awarded his doctorate for a thesis in 1934 on the poisonous chemicals of the destroying angel fungus (Amanita virosa). From 1936 onwards at Sandoz he principally undertook research on glycosides for the treatment of heart problems. Among others he managed to isolate important secondary compounds from Strophanthus, which led to a cycle of 36 scientific publications on this subject. Later on he dedicated his work to the isolation of Scillirosid, the poison of the sea-squill (Urginea maritima). In his research on secondary products of Podophyllum and their cytostatic effects he contributed significantly to 14 papers as well as contributing to the development of phenothiazines, which were used in the worldwide known pharmaceutical "Mellcril". In the early 1950s, together with Drs. Brack, Hofmann, and Jucker, he was enormously productive in a research group where he was very much in his element, and he regretted that later on increasing administrative responsibilities gave him little time in the laboratory.

A love of nature in all its diversity and a lifelong interest in culture were common threads that can be traced throughout his life. In 1928 he described his first newly discovered orchid in Greece, and about 100 further were to follow during his life. Although his fascination for nature was mainly directed to his pharmaceutical research during his working life, his love of orchids was given full reign on his retirement. Lengthy semiannual expeditions in his Range Rover took him to Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan between 1972 and 1975. The material he collected on these trips was written up in the orchid accounts for Flora Iranica (1984) and Flora of Pakistan (1984). On these trips he was equally fascinated by the people he met and their culture, thereby uniting his twin interests. These twin loves he succeeded in passing on to others, not least his sons.

After completing the orchid account for Flora Iranica he worked on the orchids for the Flora of Turkey, a region he had known since his youth and from which he had already published several new orchid species. Later, publications followed on the orchids of tropical Africa and Oceania. In the 1980s he worked on the orchids for the Flora of Guyana and shortly before his 90th birthday he agreed to work on the orchid account for the Flora of Bhutan. This work which will shortly go the press contains his treatment of the Orchideae including several newly described species and new genus.

He maintained an extensive network of contacts in the orchid world and attended many orchid conferences and shows around the world. He had contacts to all important botanical institutions where he was highly regarded for his modesty and achievements. His close collaboration with the Basel Botanical Institute led to the development of a fine collection of living orchids in the Botanical Garden there. Flowering specimens would be sent to him for naming, and many of the flowers are now to be found in his herbarium. He also actively encouraged Samuel Sprunger and me to collaborate on a series of publication culminating in the publication of facsimiles of João Barbosa Rodrigues paintings of Brazilian orchids (1996). Part of this project involved the restoration of the original paintings as a joint Swiss-Brazil cultural collaboration.

He developed in the attic of his house a fine herbarium and a superlative library of orchid books and other literature, certainly one of the finest in private hands. Practically all the published literature on orchids is to be found there as well as over 20'000 herbarium specimens and all the types of his newly described orchid species. He has bequeathed these, a life´s work which reflects his indefatigable research activities on orchids, to the Botanical Institute of the City of Basel, which will provide a wonderful basis for future orchid research at the Institute and Botanical Garden.

He is also commemorated by the orchid genus Renzorchis Szlach. & Olsz., eleven orchids and six other plants named in his honour: Silene renzii Melzh., Scorzonera renzii K.H.Rechinger, Astragalus renzianus Hub.-Mor., Hedysarum renzii K.H. Rechinger, Brachionidium renzii Luer, Dactylorhiza renzii Aver., × renzii Baum. & Kunk., Disa renziana Szlach., Epidendrum renzii Garay & Dunst., Epipactis renzii Robatsch, Habenaria renziana Szlach. & Olsz., Masdevallia renzii Luer, Ophrys renzii Sóo, Ponerorchis renzii Deva & Naithani, Restrepia renzii Luer, Ranunculus renzii Iranshahr & K.H.Rech., and Verbascum renzii Hub.-Mor. Finally, his co-authors (Pearce and Cribb) have dedicated the forthcoming Flora of Bhutan orchid account to his memory in appreciation of his important contribution to orchid taxonomy.

He is survived by his second wife Heidi Freudiger and by his two sons, Felix and Thomas, from his first marriage to Sarah Märklin.