Barbara D. Webster - In Memoriam

In Memoriam


Barbara D. Webster

Barbara D. Webster
Professor of Plant Sciences, Emerita
UC Davis

Barbara D. Webster died Sept. 7, 2017, in Davis, Calif., at the age of 88. Born and raised in the Boston area, she earned a B.S. in botany at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1950; an M.A. in biology from Smith College, Northampton, Mass., in 1952; and a Ph.D. in biology from Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., in 1957. She had a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship from 1958 to 1959 and served as acting assistant professor at Purdue University from 1960 to 1964.

Her research extended from her Ph.D. research on morphogenesis in bracken fern to reproductive biology and pollination mechanisms in legumes, nitrogen fixation in legumes, environmental stresses in relation to morphogenesis, and seed yield in crop plants. Her postdoctoral research on organ abscission in plants became a recurring theme throughout the rest of her academic career. Her research approaches combined plant anatomy, morphology, ultrastructure and physiology.

Webster arrived in Davis in 1966. Her husband, Grady L. Webster, had been appointed
professor in the Department of Botany at the University of California, Davis. Barbara Webster
was unemployed at first, but she soon progressed to “underemployed” as a laboratory
technician, because there were no spousal academic appointment opportunities in those days.
In 1967, she was appointed lecturer and assistant research morphologist in the California
Agricultural Experiment Station research series in the departments of Agronomy and Range
Science and Vegetable Crops. She remained in that position until 1979, when she was
appointed to an Academic Senate tenured position as professor and agronomist in the
Department of Agronomy and Range Science.

She pursued research on leaf and pod abscission in common beans, and flower, fruit and seed
development in other crop plants. She received research grants from the United States
Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Agency for International Development, NSF and the
California Dry Bean Advisory Board. Webster’s work with her students and other collaborators
was published in prominent national and international botanical and horticultural journals.
Webster mentored undergraduates and taught an undergraduate course in crop morphology.
She mentored and trained graduate students and postdocs, often women and minorities. As a
senior Fulbright research fellow, she conducted research in Kenya on nitrogen fixation in beans
at the University of Nairobi, Kenya.

Webster pursued involvement in academic affairs and held the following administrative
appointments: Management fellow, Office of Vice-Chancellor, Academic Affairs (1980-81); 
associate dean, Division of Biological Sciences (1981-82); associate dean for research and
development, Graduate Studies and Research (1982-89); associate vice chancellor for research
(1989-92). During this last appointment, she served as the interim director for the USAID
multinational Small Ruminant Collaborative Research Support Program and was instrumental in
stabilizing funding and recruitment of a permanent director. She served on and chaired
numerous panels, boards and committees for the NSF, National Research Council, USDA,
Associated Western Universities, W. K. Kellogg Foundation-Grants and National Center for
Atmospheric Research.

Webster was the first woman elected treasurer of the Botanical Society of America, serving
from 1977 to 1981, and later served as president in 1983. She was named a distinguished fellow
of the Botanical Society of America in 2008, and a fellow of the American Association for the
Advancement of Science and of the American Society for Horticultural Science. She received the
university medal from Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador, and was a visiting scholar
in the People’s Republic of China. Locally, Webster served as chair of the Davis Planning
Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustment, and was co-chair of the grants committee of
the Davis Regional Science Center.

Webster had a longstanding interest in creating and improving opportunities in academia for
women and other under-represented groups. She was a frequent contributor to faculty
development workshops for new and junior faculty at UC Davis, always emphasizing the
importance of understanding the academic system, of understanding expectations for
professional advancement, of choosing a mentor, and of choosing one’s battles. She was a
strong advocate for women in science, particularly women graduate students, and a vigorous
proponent of support networks and interest groups to enhance collegiality and share
information about resources and strategies for a successful career in academia.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Webster also traveled to academic institutions throughout
the U.S., where she gave talks on the challenges for women in the sciences and academia. She
was active in the UC Davis Women’s Resources and Research Center Network and in the Faculty
Women’s Research Support Group, meeting regularly with colleagues to provide guidance to
new women faculty and encourage an appropriate balance of research, teaching and service to
be successful in the promotion and tenure process.

In 2006, Webster and daughter Susan V. Webster established the Grady L. Webster Awards for
the Botanical Society of America and for the American Society of Plant Taxonomists. In 2018,
these were renamed the Grady L. Webster and Barbara D. Webster Awards to include Barbara as
an equal partner in recognition of her career and contributions to botany, horticulture and educational

In 2020, Susan Webster endowed the Barbara D. Webster Scholar Award to provide support for
faculty members in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis who represent excellence in their field,
present unique and transformative perspectives, exhibit the leadership ability to impact their discipline,
and work to advance women in plant sciences. 
Webster retired from UC Davis in December 1992, staying active in the UC Davis Emeriti
Association, the Davis Branch of the League of Women Voters and several book groups.

She is survived by her daughter, Susan V. Webster, son-in-law Hernán Navarrete; sister Dorothy
Sears and brother William Donahue; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and
grandnephews. She was preceded in death by her husband Grady Webster in 2005, and by
brother Robert Donahue.

Judy Jernstedt
Calvin O. Qualset