Obituary: David Coombe

DAVID COOMBE was a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, for over 48 years and its Vice-Master from 1980 to 1984. An outline of his academic career gives no indication of the diversity of his interests or the breadth of his reputation - he has been accurately described as the leading botanical ecologist of his generation.

He came up to Christ's as a Scholar in 1945, and stayed on as a graduate student working with Clifford Evans, later Reader in Experimental Ecology. Coombe was elected to a Research Fellowship in 1951 and the following year to a University Lectureship in the Department of Botany at Cambridge, which he held until his retirement in 1989. It was a career pattern typical of many academics of his generation.

What set Coombe apart was his exceptional memory and extraordinary insight into plant communities and how they were affected by the climate and the environment. He travelled widely in the UK and throughout Europe and West Africa, which he first visited as an undergraduate accompanying Clifford Evans on his second botanical expedition to Nigeria. Over the years, Coombe built up a first-rate botanical library from which he could quote with great accuracy.

In his early twenties, as a graduate student, he worked on plant growth and light in woodlands, but it was also during this period that he made his first visit to the Lizard in Cornwall in 1950. He was at once fascinated by its exceptional micro- climate and the variety of plants. For many years he returned to the Lizard to make extensive notes and collect specimens. He was the first to describe a new species of white clover growing on the Lizard and it was one of his favourite places for field trips with Cambridge students.

Amongst many observations, he recognised that the common juniper, a single species highly variable in form, made ideal material to study ecotypic differentiation, particularly the balance between genetic heterogeneity and environment on the determination of plant form. Coombe is responsible for a unique collection of junipers still held at Cambridge University's Botanic Garden and currently used as an important source of material for botanical research. It is a tribute to his efforts that the Lizard is now a 5,000-acre nature reserve.

He saw no boundaries to the study of plants. He was equally happy working in the field, carrying out experiments at the Botanic Garden on the growth of tropical trees or studying the history of the landscape. His approach to Historical Ecology opened up important new areas of academic research. He used many different sources of historical records to determine environmental conditions and any sort of botanical records available, even 19th-century engravings and identifying individual trees painted by Constable to assess their growth over the last 150 years. His own research on the ecological history of Madingley Wood near Cambridge and Buff Wood on the Lizard are outstanding contributions to this discipline.

While working on the heaths of Cornwall, he continued with research into plant growth and light in woodlands. He studied the spectral composition of shade light and adapted a hemispherical lens from a fish-eye camera which, together with photography, he used to determine the sun flecks - small patches of unfiltered sunlight - under a woodland canopy. His grandfather (a horticulturist and ardent amateur photographer) would have been proud of him.

Coombe lived in college for most of his life. He played an active part in the college community as Tutor and Director of Studies, member of the College Council and Honorary Garden Steward. He also served for over 30 years as a much-valued member of the College Livings Committee, often representing the college at installations of new ministers, interacting with local parishes as well as the larger hierarchy of the Church of England.

He was by nature a very private person, valuing his independence, but with an underlying sense of fun. From time to time, surprised colleagues would catch a glimpse of him on his powerful Honda motorcycle - but then we did not know that his father had been a motorcycle mechanic. His interest in horse-racing also seems unexpected, but this arose from field studies on the vanishing Cambridgeshire chalk heaths where he had noted that the tracks used by the horses had atypical flora. This led to his annual pilgrimage to the longest flat race in Britain, the Cesarewitch at Newmarket, which, if watched from the starting point, could be coupled with a field trip to the Devil's Dyke and the surrounding heathland.

David Coombe will be remembered by many as an inspirational teacher and a man of exceptional generosity. He once commented - with typical modesty - that he had been blessed with a "fairly accurate" knowledge of botany from Iceland and the North Cape via the Mediterranean to West Africa, and he considered it selfish not to pass on useful information whenever he could. His field trips to places such as Wicken Fen, the Norfolk and Suffolk Breckland and the Lizard were legendary - energetic, unpredictable, undertaken regardless of weather, in severe storms on the Lizard and rising tides at Scolt Head Island. Nevertheless, once it was known that a field trip of Coombe's was planned many people would make sure that they were in the right place to join in.

It is possible that it was on one of these field trips that he acquired a fungus infection which led to radical chest surgery and a permanent injury to his health which greatly affected his productivity and quality of life for the last 21 years. He had already published numerous papers, edited the Journal of Ecology, and in 1965 co-translated into English Eduard Strasburger's textbook of botany, but his own major monograph had been left too late.

Despite constant pain and progressive emphysema, he continued to write articles and maintain his botanical correspondence, always hand-written and packed with botanical information. As his strength declined, he worked more and more on local material and published predominantly in Nature in Cambridgeshire; he left with a paper "in press" for the next issue.

Alan J. Munro

David Edwin Coombe, botanical ecologist: born Bath 9 March 1927; Fellow, Christ's College, Cambridge 1951-99, Vice-Master 1980-84; University Lecturer, Department of Botany, Cambridge University 1952-89; died Cambridge 28 June 1999.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?