Springfield Road, Cambridge
, looking north. No. 37 is the last house on the left
William Thomas Stearn was born at 37 Springfield Road, Chesterton, Cambridge, England, on 16 April 1911, the eldest of four sons, to Thomas Stearn (1871 or 1872–1922) and Ellen ("Nellie") Kiddy (1886–1986) of West Suffolk. His father worked as a coachman to a Cambridge doctor. Chesterton was then a village on the north bank of the River Cam, about two miles north of Cambridge's city centre, where Springfield Road ran parallel to Milton Road to the west. William Stearn's early education was at the nearby Milton Road Junior Council School (see image).[a] Despite not having any family background in science (though he recalled that his grandfather was the university rat-catcher) he developed a keen interest in natural history and books at an early age. He spent his school holidays on his uncle's Suffolk farm, tending cows grazing by the roadside where he would observe the wild flowers of the hedgerows and fields. Stearn's father died suddenly in 1922 when Stearn was only eleven, leaving his working-class family in financial difficulties as his widow (Stearn's mother) had no pension.
That year, William Stearn succeeded in obtaining a scholarship to the local Cambridge High School for Boys on Hills Road, close to the Cambridge Botanic Garden, which he attended for eight years till he was 18. The school had an excellent reputation for biology education, and while he was there, he was encouraged by Mr Eastwood, a biology teacher who recognised his talents. The school also provided him with a thorough education in both Latin and Greek. He became secretary of the school's Natural History Society, won an essay prize from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and spent much of his time at the Botanic Garden.[b] Stearn also gained horticultural experience by working as a gardener's boy during his school holidays, to supplement the family income.
Stearn attended evening lectures on paleobotany given by Albert Seward (chair of botany at Cambridge University 1906–1936), and Harry Godwin. Seward was impressed by the young Stearn, giving him access to the herbarium of the Botany School (now Department of Plant Sciences—see 1904 photograph) and allowing him to work there as a part-time research assistant. Later, Seward also gave Stearn access to the Cambridge University Library to pursue his research.
Stearn was largely self-educated and his widowed mother worked hard to support him while at school but could not afford a university education for him, there being no grants available then. When not at the Botany School, he attended evening classes to develop linguistic and bibliographic skills. His classes there included German and the classics. He obtained his first employment at the age of 18 in 1929, a time of high unemployment, to support himself and his family. He worked as an apprentice antiquarian bookseller and cataloguer in the second-hand section at Bowes & Bowes bookshop,[c] 1 Trinity Street (now Cambridge University Press), between 1929 and 1933 where he was able to pursue his passion for bibliography. During his employment there, he spent much of his lunchtimes, evenings and weekends, at the Botany School and Botanic Garden. This was at a time when botany was thriving at Cambridge under the leadership of Seward and Humphrey Gilbert-Carter.
On 3 August 1940, he married Eldwyth Ruth Alford (1910–2013), by whom he had a son and two daughters, and who collaborated with him in much of his work. Ruth Alford was a secondary school teacher from Tavistock, Devon, the daughter of Roger Rice Alford a Methodist preacher and mayor of Tavistock. When their engagement was announced in The Times, Stearn was vastly amused to see that he was described as a "Fellow of the Linen Society", a typographical error for Linnean Society. Stearn was brought up an Anglican, but was a conscientious objector and after the Second World War he became a Quaker. In his later years, following official retirement in 1976 he continued to live in Kew, Richmond. His entry in Who's Who lists his interests as "gardening and talking". He died on 9 May 2001 of pneumonia at Kingston Hospital, Kingston upon Thames, at the age of 90. His funeral took place on 18 May at Mortlake crematorium. He was survived by his widow and three children (Roger Thomas Stearn, Margaret Ruth Stearn and Helen Elizabeth Stearn) leaving an estate of £461,240. His wife, whose 100th birthday was celebrated at the Linnean Society in 2010, lived to the age of 103.
Professor Stearn had a reputation for his encylopaedic knowledge, geniality, wit and generosity with his time and knowledge, being always willing to contribute to the work of others. He had a mischievous sense of fun and was famous for his anecdotes while lecturing, while his colleagues recalled that "he had a happy genius for friendship". He was described as having a striking figure, "a small man, his pink face topped with a thatch of white hair", and earned the nickname of "Wumpty" after his signature of "Wm. T. Stearn".