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300 Years of Growth

David Allardice Webb (1949-1966)

David Allardice WebbTo quote from a tribute written by Franklin Perring (Perring, 1995), ‘David Webb, the eminence grise (and, in later years, eminence blanc) of Irish botany was a colossus with one foot firmly placed in his native country but the other planted in Britain and Europe. For two generations he was not only the leading taxonomic botanist in Ireland but the best known, and respected, Irish botanist in international circles, with his major contributions to Flora Europaea and the genus Saxifraga.’

David Webb, Fellow and former Professor of Systematic Botany of Trinity College Dublin (TCD), was born on 12th August 1912 and died, in a car accident, near Oxford on 26th September 1994. His mother was a medical doctor and his father, G.R. Webb, was also a Fellow of TCD (but a mathematician, philosopher and administrator).

Akeroyd & Wyse Jackson (1996) describe David's physical appearance well. They write, ‘He was tall and, for most of his life slim, and as a young man he had red hair. He adopted denim jeans and jackets as a uniform some time during the late 1960s, combined with trainers and more often than not a sweater or teeshirt emblazoned with the logo and trade-name of his jeans supplier. These he wore simply because they were comfortable. He favoured tweed on more formal occasions, often with brightly coloured shirts, waistcoats and ties. An unruly halo of bushy shoulder-length white hair complemented this perhaps slightly louche image.’

David’s formal education spanned Europe. He attended Preparatory School in Dalkey, Dublin then Charterhouse in Godalming, Surrey. Graduating in Natural Sciences at TCD in 1935, with first class honours, David carried out research on the chemical composition of seawater and marine invertebrates, especially vanadium in the blood-pigments of tunicates. A Ph.D. from TCD obtained in 1937 combined with transfer to the Department of Zoology, Cambridge, as the holder of an Overseas Scholarship. His work then took him to the Stazione Zoologica at Naples to work on the biochemistry of the blood of tunicates. In 1939 he gained a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge for his thesis on the biochemistry of marine invertebrates and in 1940 he published with J.Z. Young on the action potential of giant nerve fibres of one of the genera of the Squid - Loligo.

During ‘The Emergency’ he contracted diphtheria, from an overnight stay in a seedy and unhygienic hotel in the Irish Midlands, and, whilst recovering, received a message from TCD that the Professor of Botany, H.H. Dixon, required an Assistant to deliver a course of lectures. David soon joined the staff of TCD as a full-time Assistant Lecturer in Botany. By 1943 he had put together a first edition of his pocket reference handbook on Irish plants, An Irish Flora. This has been, for over 50 years, through seven, soon to be eight editions, the standard field reference book on Irish plants. David was appointed Professor of Plant Biology (1949) for seven years, succeeding Dixon as University Professor of Botany in 1954. He held both these chairs until 1965 when W.A. Watts succeeded him as University Professor of Botany. He was Professor of Systematic Botany from 1966 until his retirement in 1979, after which he held an honorary chair of the same name until his death.

After he had worked on invertebrate physiology, David Webb's initial botanical research concentrated on physiological ecology, notably the problem of the distribution of calcicole and calcifuge plants in the Irish flora. The Phytogeographical Excursion to Ireland in 1949 co-led by David, stimulated his interest in Irish plant geography and led to papers concerned with individual species, patterns of distribution of cohorts of species and field-recording of plant distributions. The latter was reflected both in his monumental  contribution to the Atlas of the flora of the British Isles and to the Distribution Maps Scheme of the B.S.B.I.. To paraphrase Akeroyd & Wyse Jackson (1996), ‘The problem of producing gridded maps for [the whole of] Ireland was presented to Professor Webb, who solved it elegantly and published the skeleton of his agony in a short paper in 1955’. Essentially, the problem arose from the fact that the Irish 0rdnance Survey did not, perhaps not unsurprisingly, carry the British National Grid. In such a delicate situation, the mediating role was admirably played by David, who was in a position to see both sides of the affair. David remained conscious of the value of field work and, through his will, has also continued to support study of the Irish flora in its broader European context.

In 1951, David began study of the Dactyloid and Robertsonian groups of saxifrages which culminated thirty-eight years later in a monograph with Richard Gornall. Akeroyd & Wyse Jackson (1996), rightly indicate that the XIV International Botanical Congress in Paris in 1954 represented a critical point in his career and the future development of plant taxonomy in Europe. They state, ‘during a quiet interlude of the Congress, David and a group of like-minded British colleagues met in a Left Bank cafe for discussion and, as he himself admitted, "a little too much Calvados". There they resolved to write a comprehensive Flora of Europe. A few weeks later, having recruited other interested parties in Britain, this caucus of young and able botanists established a Flora Europaea Editorial Committee.’

David Webb made an astonishing contribution to Flora Europaea. His massive and broad intellect, encompassing botany, related sciences, geography and history; his critical editing; his love of travel, his amazing memory and his working knowledge of some 15 European languages made him both a major driving force and frankly, a somewhat feared figure. From Volume 1 onwards he was given special responsibility for checking the geographical distribution of each plant included in the Flora. Some idea of his qualities flow from this quote from his 1978 retrospective on the project (Webb, 1978). ‘A rather terse minute in the very first meeting of the editorial committee reads: "Careful policy advisable to avoid specialists, whose work would be too detailed for inclusion. All collaborators would have to keep within the general plan agreed on for the Flora." There were times when we wished that we had adhered more strictly to this policy, as I think that my fellow-editors would agree with my generalization that (with a few shining exceptions) the more eminent an author and the more he knew about his genus the worse was his contribution. ….. Time after time we received from leading taxonomists contributions which, if they had come from a student, we would have instantly handed back with a sharp rebuke, and which, if they had been published as they stood, would have made not only the Flora but also the author the laughing stock of Europe. Recondite knowledge of the correct nomenclature of subspecies did not atone for mistakes in the number of the floral parts, for erroneous page-references from a book which the author himself had edited, for species appearing in the text but not in the key, or appearing there under different names, for grossly defective or grossly excessive synonymy, or for a failure to realize that international boundaries in Central Europe were not the same as they were when the first volumes of Hegi's Flora were published. Above all, the manuscript was apt to arrive far too late, and when it came to be far too long. There were at least two desks in Central Europe on which unanswered telegrams from the editorial committee lay thick as autumn leaves in Vallombrosa, and, as regards length, I think it is true to say that 75% of the contributions from outside the ranks of the editors and their assistants required abbreviation. For one genus of about 30 species we received a large parcel containing the primary version, to which was reluctantly appended an "abbreviated version". The latter was about 3 times the required length, and the total contents of the parcel amounted to 215 pages.’ He continued with his work on the European Flora and the revised Volume 1 of Flora Europaea (1993) owes a huge amount to him.

Flora Europaea was completed in 1980, and so David turned to finish Trinity College Dublin, 1592-1952; an academic history which he wrote with R.B. McDowell (Webb & McDowell, 1982). In the foreword the historian and Provost of TCD, F.S.L. Lyons, wrote that David Webb possessed "the most incisive mind of his generation in College". During the last few years of his life David also put much energy into a revision of the TCD statutes (though these were not adopted by the College) and, with Anne Crookshank, he published a book on the history of art in TCD.

In 1982 he was awarded the Boyle Medal of the Royal Dublin Society (R.D.S.). In 1983 he published the classic Flora of Connemara and the Burren (with M.J.P. Scannell), bringing together his lifetime's work, knowledge and love of those regions.

David devoted much energy to teaching. He was a fine lecturer always clear, always well-prepared, his lectures peppered with very amusing, indeed on occasion hilarious, anecdotes. His Presidential Address to the B.S.B.I. in 1990 entitled "Genera, Hollow Curves and Boojums" was memorable. In it he linked particular taxonomists, whose approach to generic delimitation he felt was misguided, to described characters (the Beaver, the Butcher, the Barrister, the Bellman and the Banker) from Lewis Carroll's ‘The hunting of the snark’. As a conversationalist he was also superb. Thomas Mitchell, a former Provost of TCD, remembers being astonished at the quality of his dialogue at the University’s high table. As newly appointed to the University Chair of Latin and in the setting of the formal evening meal of the College, Mitchell was tackled by David, immediately on first acquaintance, in a knowledgeable way, on Mitchell’s area of specialized expertise – Cicero. David quizzed him on those aspects of Cicero’s life he did not know about already, concluding by describing Cicero, amongst other things, as a ‘failed politician’ – ‘all this’, as Mitchell put it, ‘ coming from a Botanist’.

David never married but maintained a wide circle of friends, spanning several generations, whom he would visit or entertain regularly. Unfortunately, David made apparent that he did not suffer fools gladly and often appeared somewhat intolerant of children - to quote Akeroyd & Wyse Jackson (1996) ‘ultimately his was a man's world, of an earlier Oxbridge and clubman's age.’

Akeroyd, J.R.A. & Wyse Jackson, P.W.J. (1996). Obituary. David Allerdyce Webb (1912 – 1994). Watsonia, 21: 3-13.

Crrokshank, A. & Webb, D.A. (1990). Portraits and sculptures in Trinity College, Dublin. Trinity College Dublin Press, Dublin. Pp. 205.

Perring, F.H. (1995). David A. Webb Memorial issue of Watsonia. Watsonia, 21:. 1.

Webb, D.A. (1978). Flora Europaea – a retrospective. Taxon, 27: 3-14.

Webb, D.A. & Gornall, R.J. (1989). Saxifrages of Europe. Christopher Helm, London. Pp. VIII + 307.

 Webb, D.A. & McDowell, R.B. (1982). Trinity College Dublin, 1592-1952; an academic history.

Cambridge University Press. Pp. XXXIII + 580.

Webb, D.A. & Scannell, M.J.P. (1983). Flora of Connemara and the Burren. Cambridge University press, Cambridge & the Royal Dublin Society. Pp. XIV + 322.

Photo: Botany Department, Trinity College Dublin


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