Frank Edwin Chowning (1894–1981)
Frank Chowning was a longtime Little Rock (Pulaski County) attorney. He was also a plant enthusiast whose work with irises, especially his hybridization efforts, earned him an international reputation.
Francis Edwin Chowning was born on May 26, 1894, in Rison (Cleveland County) to Nathaniel Barnett Chowning and Deborah Curtis Marks Chowning. Chowning grew up and received his early education in Rison before attending Henderson-Brown College (now Henderson State University) in Arkadelphia (Clark County). His time at Henderson-Brown was interrupted by World War I, during which Chowning served in the U.S. Army, earning the rank of lieutenant while stationed in France. Following the war, he earned his law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1922.
He married Martha Speakes Bradford in 1928, and they had two children: a daughter, Ann, who became a prominent anthropologist, and a son Robert, who became an attorney.
After law school, Chowning settled in Little Rock and ultimately practiced law in the capital city for fifty-two years with the firm of Chowning, Mitchell, Hamilton and Burrow. He was also an accomplished businessman, with much of his wealth coming from the large tracts of cut-over land that he bought and on which he planted pine trees that were later harvested. He was also a member of the board of the Union National Bank, for which he served as a general counsel before his retirement from the practice of law in 1975.
After his first wife died in 1956, Chowning married Bryce Leigh in 1960.
Throughout his career, Chowning was active in the local community. He served as board chair of the Museum of Science and History (now the Museum of Discovery) in Little Rock, was a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Little Rock, and was president of the Little Rock Community Chest. Yet, it was his work with irises that gained him international renown. He first became interested in the flowering plant around 1930, and it soon became a passion.
Chowning’s initial interest in irises focused on collecting species native to Arkansas and Louisiana. He slowly started to hybridize them, but while he would ultimately register irises from the 1940s to the 1980s, he only registered a few of his early creations. In fact, his early practice of circulating some of his named and numbered seedlings before registration has resulted in some confusion about their identity.
His 1950 Dixie Deb, a small, light-yellow flower on very tall and slender stalks, won the coveted DeBaillon Award in 1967. He also won the award three straight years from 1979 to 1981. The 1980 winner, and his most famous creation, was a thirty-six-inch red iris with brilliant gold signals. It was named the Ann Chowning for his daughter.
Chowning’s work was featured in various catalogs and was voted at the top of numerous Judge’s Choice polls. Chowning was also known for his generous support of other iris growers, sharing his work and serving as a mentor to other growers and hybridizers.
Chowning was a continuous member of the American Iris Society (AIS) for almost fifty years, the Society for Louisiana Irises (SLI) for almost forty, and in 1978, he and his wife attended the organizational meeting of the Louisiana Iris Society of America (LISA) in San Jose, California, where they became charter members. Chowning was deeply involved in these organizations, holding offices, attending meetings all over the country, and writing for the organizations’ publications. Indeed, following his service as president of the SLI in 1961, he was awarded the organization’s special Service Award.
He died in Little Rock on November 20, 1981, and is buried in Roselawn Memorial Park in Little Rock.
For additional information:
Frank E. Chowning Papers. University Libraries. University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Lafayette, Louisiana. Finding aid online at https://library.louisiana.edu/collections/university-archives-manuscripts/acadiana-manuscripts-collections/manuscripts-collect-277 (accessed October 26, 2018).
“Hybridizer Frank Edwin Chowning (1894–1981).” The American Iris Society, Iris Encyclopedia. http://wiki.irises.org/Main/Bio/HybridizerChowningFrank (accessed October 26, 2018).
“In Memoriam—Frank E. Chowning.” Society for Louisiana Irises. https://www.louisianas.org/index.php/people/remembrances/163-in-memorium-frank-e-chowning (accessed October 26, 2018).
“Retired Lawyer, Bank Director Dies at Age 87.” Arkansas Gazette, November 21, 1981, p. 14A.
William H. Pruden III
Last Updated: 02/03/2020