Cutler's interest in economic botany began with his Ph.D. fieldwork. His first archaeobotanical work dates to 1940, when he and his wife spent their three-month honeymoon traveling in the Southwestern United States, Mexico, and Guatemala, and collecting 60 wild varieties of Tripsacum and 300 cultivated varieties of maize, including some cobs from a 900-year-old Anasazi ruin in southern Colorado. As Cutler would note in 1964, this helped define his career commitment to "the useful plants of the New World and their relatives; studies related to the taxonomy of useful plants; research on the wild relatives, variability, and kinds grown by living people; and specimens recovered from archaeological sites" (H. C. Cutler, 1964, Career Statement. Washington University, St. Louis Archives).
Although Cutler's first love was the Southwest, much of his research from 1941 through 1946 was spent in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil. During this period, Cutler was a research associate of the Harvard University Botanical Museum. He was awarded Guggenheim fellowships in 1942-1943 and 1946-1947 to conduct research on useful plants in Peru and Bolivia. During these sojourns, he also made ethnographic films on indigenous highland food production and preparation techniques. From 1943 to 1945, he worked for the U.S. Army's Rubber Development Corporation in Brazil, flying in blimps over Amazonia to identify wild rubber tree groves to be tapped later by ground parties. He subsequently was awarded several National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren, and Guggenheim grants to continue his research on economic and ethnobotany.
From 1947 to 1953, he was curator of economic botany at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. In 1953, he moved to the Missouri Botanical Garden (MBG) in St. Louis to take over a similar position. It was during the early 1950s that he became more directly involved with archaeologists, continually suggesting and demonstrating the flotation techniques that became the basis for today's technologies in paleoethnobotany for recovery of floral materials. While flotation recovery had been employed earlier in Old World research, New World students had not yet adopted this methodology. In 1951 and 1952, he employed flotation techniques to extract plant remains in the excavations by Paul Martin at Tularosa Cave and Higgins Flat Pueblo. In 1953 he demonstrated the technique again for the Point of Pines project for Emil Haury and his students. One of the undergraduate students involved in Haury's 1953 season was Patty Jo Watson, who was to become a strong advocate of plant recovery by flotation techniques.
In 1960, Bill Cutler participated in Stuart Struever's field school for high school students at Kampsville, Illinois. Visiting his son at the site, Cutler suggested to Struever that plant remains might be recovered by flotation techniques. Struever, who is often viewed by archaeology students as one of the "inventors" of flotation techniques, clearly notes in his 1968 article that "The original idea of attempting flotation recovery of food remains was planted in my head by Dr. Hugh Cutler; it was his urging that prompted us to experiment with these methods, and for this I am grateful" [S. Struever, 1968, Flotation techniques for the recovery of small-scale archaeological remains. American Antiquity 33(3): 361]. Watson similarly notes her debt to Hugh Cutler for his first demonstration in 1953 as well as his later consultations at Washington University in St. Louis.
Cutler continued his association with the Missouri Botanical Gardens, serving in various administrative positions from 1954 to 1964, until his retirement in 1977. Initially, administrative responsibilities and rebuilding the infrastructure of the institution occupied much of his time, but he was later able to devote more of his research time to questions directly related to anthropology. A frequent attendee of the Pecos Conferences because of his interest in the subsistence patterns of prehistoric populations in the Southwest, he decided that botany could benefit from a similar meeting. Using the Pecos Conference as his model, he established the on-going, annual MBG Systematics Symposium in 1954.
From the mid-1950s onward, most of his more than 150 publications focused upon the results of analyses of plants from archaeological and ethnographic field researchers. Cutler had a particular interest in prehistoric races of maize, squashes, and gourds, although his analyses (usually done gratis) detailed the identification of all the plant specimens submitted in the sample. Also in the mid-1950s, his work caught the attention of a St. Louis avocational archaeological group. After training, a few members volunteered to assist in the more tedious parts of these analyses. Cutler was always very generous in sharing credit in his publications. One of these volunteers, Leonard W. Blake, worked in Cutler's lab twice a week and is listed as the coauthor of many analyses, the best known of which is Plants from Archaeological Sites East of the Rockies (H. C. Cutler and L. W. Blake, 1973, St. Louis: Missouri Botanical Gardens).
Cutler was named an adjunct professor of anthropology at Washington University in 1969, and began the first departmental seminar in paleoethnobotany in 1970. Upon his retirement in 1977, his archaeological maize and cucurbit collection was sent to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield and is now curated as the "Cutler-Blake Collection." His collection of more than 12,000 ears of ethnographic maize (including specimens integrated into his sets from earlier investigations by Edgar Anderson) was transferred to the Department of Agriculture at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
David L. Browman is professor of anthropology at Washington University, St. Louis. He gratefully acknowledges the biographic assistance provided by Leonard Blake, William Cutler, Douglas Holland, Carole Prietto, and Patty Jo Watson.