Obituary: Professor David Webb

S. M. Walters
Tuesday 11 October 1994 00:02 BST

David Allerdice Webb, botanist: born Dublin 12 August 1912; Assistant, Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin 1940-49, Professor of Botany 1949-66, Professor of Systematic Botany 1966-84 (Emeritus); died Oxford 25 September 1994.

DAVID WEBB played an essential role from its inception in 1954 in the Flora Europaea organisation, an international botanical project that published between 1964 and 1980 a complete new Flora describing all the higher plants occurring wild in Europe, from Iceland and the Azores to the Ural mountains and the foothills of the Caucasus. Webb's contribution to this monumental work was outstanding, not only in writing and editing, but also in his expert interest in questions of geographical distribution.

Webb was born in Dublin in 1912 and educated at Charterhouse and then at Trinity College, where he graduated in 1935. He carried out research in marine biology, and gained his PhD at Trinity College, Cambridge, on the blood pigments of tunicates. In 1940 he became assistant to HH Dixon, Professor of Botany at Trinity College Dublin, and succeeded him to the Chair there in 1949, retiring finally from the department in 1984.

Webb was a man of great talent and broad cultural interests, a bon viveur with a wide circle of friends who appreciated his ready wit and quick repartee. As a bachelor Fellow of Trinity College Dublin, he filled naturally the part of one born into that remarkable class, the Anglo-Irish ascendancy. His appearance in later years was distinguished, even arresting, a tall, slim figure with an aquiline expression and a shock of unruly white hair. To those of us pedestrian Englishmen who came across him professionally in botanical academic circles, he offered a vision of a different, more cultivated world of learning, though breaking the ice of his somewhat reserved, even haughty, mien took some little time. In my own case, that ice was broken marvellously when he joined a student group from Cambridge to Portugal that a colleague and I had organised in 1952. Travelling together back from Portugal through Northern Spain cemented a friendship that lasted over 40 years.

Webb's greatest special study in the Flora Europaea was the genus Saxifraga, for which he travelled widely to see all the European species in their natural haunts; it is good that, as a permanent memorial to this work, we hold now in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden a Natural Collection of European Saxifrages initiated and enlarged by Webb himself. He also played an important part in the international Atlas Florae Europaeae, a continuing compendium of distribution maps of all European plants edited from Helsinki.

Though his botanical talent is abundantly clear from the published volumes of Flora Europaea, Webb also played a role as a 'natural European' in the cementing of social relationships across linguistic and cultural barriers which was arguably his unique contribution. Sitting in spirit between Britain and the Irish Republic, he could where necessary remind the English of how they looked to Continental European eyes, and his pleasure and skill in foreign languages was an enormous asset. It was fitting that he should write, in 1978, when the fifth and final volume went to Cambridge University Press, a valedictory paper, 'Flora Europaea - a retrospect', in which he characteristically muses on why we succeeded in writing the Flora, and some of the trials of the editors. Especially entertaining is a passage on what colleagues in different parts of Europe meant by the phrase 'extreme north', which concluded with an apposite quotation from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man.

Ask where's the North? At York, 'tis on the Tweed;

In Scotland at the Orcades; and there,

At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where . . .

Webb's greatest contribution to Irish botanical education is his pocket Irish Flora, first published in 1943 and used by generations of schoolchildren and university students. He had indeed just finished correcting the proofs of a new, seventh edition before leaving for the holiday in England during which he met his death in a road accident. He was genuinely puzzled by the continued success of this modest volume, and seemed to avoid talking about it, as if it were of no great significance. Perhaps he felt it was too dull a subject. Certainly he saw as a more creditable achievement in the realm of scholarship his History of Trinity College, Dublin (1982), which he wrote jointly with his friend RB McDowell. Other published works include the Flora of Connemara and the Burren (1983), with Mary Scannell, and Saxifrages of Europe (1989), with Richard Gornall.

How should one remember this remarkable man? One image is that of the traditional absent-minded professor. Visiting once the Botanic Garden in Cambridge, he appeared without any luggage, which he had inadvertently left on a London underground train. He was, however, still clutching a sheaf of Flora Europeae manuscript on which he was then working, but halfway across the Botanic Garden to my office he shed even these precious documents, which were eventually retrieved from under a bush. David took such events with a sort of amused detachment. It was, I suppose, the Irish insouciance in his character.

(Photograph omitted)

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