Obituary: David Coombe

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The Independent Culture
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.