Obituary: Michael G. Barbour, beloved instructor, noted ecologist and professor emeritus in the Department of Plant Sciences

Michael Barbour
(Photo/Jennifer Buck-Diaz)

Michael G. Barbour, noted ecologist and professor emeritus in the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of California, Davis, passed away on Jan. 7 due to complications from a longstanding illness. He was 78.

Barbour was a beloved ecology instructor who received the Distinguished Teaching Award from UC Davis in 1988. Throughout his long teaching and research career, Barbour studied the plant communities of a wide variety of environments, including high montane conifer forests, vernal pools, warm desert scrubland and coastal dunes. A thread running through much of his work was the interest in how plants can survive extreme environmental conditions, such as drought, wildfire, and salt spray.

“Michael Barbour is one of the most influential plant ecologists—his work has set the foundations for how we understand, characterize and monitor vegetation communities and ecosystems,” said Valerie Eviner, professor in the Department of Plant Sciences. “His detailed understanding of plant functioning, long-term observations in the field, deep knowledge of natural history, and collaboration with researchers across disciplines and around the world, have led to unique and innovative approaches, and a comprehensive understanding of many ecosystems across California and the globe.”

The recipient of many awards and grants, including Fulbright scholarships to study in Australia and Portugal, Barbour also authored or co-authored 50 textbooks in plant ecology and botany, with several written for the courses he taught.

“I was fortunate to be in Dr. Barbour's plant ecology class in 1978,” wrote a former student on Twitter. “Have never forgotten his passion for the subject matter.” In a true outpouring of love on Twitter, many former students shared how Barbour’s teaching had changed their life. In addition, Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, tweeted “Michael was such a gift to the campus.”

Barbour was raised in both Michigan and California, with the stark vegetation of Southern California leaving a particular impact on him.

When he attended Michigan State University as an undergraduate, he had elected to study biochemistry for its currency in the news; however, in his senior year, in which he took a mandatory year of basic botany, he discovered a fascination with plants. In a 2009 interview, he attributed this pivotal shift of study and interest not to any professor or book, both which he described as having been “stodgy,” but to the “plants themselves.”

Building on this newfound fascination, Barbour went on to earn both his Bachelor’s and Ph.D. in botany, the former from MSU in 1963 and the latter from Duke University in 1967. His doctorate concerned the desert creosote bush, and he was the first in his family to earn such a degree.

Shortly after graduating in 1967, Barbour began an assistant professorship at UC Davis teaching general botany and plant ecology in what was then known as the Department of Botany, for which he would later serve as department chair. Throughout his tenure at UC Davis, Barbour worked in the departments of plant biology, environmental horticulture, geography, and, ultimately, plant sciences. He retired in 2007.

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