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Barbara D. Webster
In Memoriam

Barbara D. Webster

Professor of Plant Sciences, Emerita

UC Davis

Barbara D. Webster died 7 September 2017 in Davis CA at age 88. Born and raised in the Boston area, she earned a B.S. in Botany at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1950); an M.A. in Biology from Smith College, Northampton MA (1952); and Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University, Cambridge MA (1957). She had an NSF Postdoctoral fellowship (1958-59) and served as Acting Assistant Professor (1960-64) at Purdue University.

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, and environmental stresses in relation to morphogenesis, and seed yield in crop plants. Her postdoctoral research on organ abscission in plants was a recurring theme throughout the rest of her academic career. Her research approaches combined plant anatomy, morphology, ultrastructure, and physiology.

Barbara arrived in Davis, CA in 1966. Her husband, Grady L. Webster, had been appointed Professor in the Department of Botany, UC Davis. Barbara 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 USDA, USAID, NSF, and the California Dry Bean Advisory Board. She, with her students and other collaborators, published their work in prominent national and international botanical and horticultural journals. Barbara 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.

Barbara 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 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 National Science Foundation, National Research Council, USDA, Associated Western Universities, W. K. Kellogg Foundation-Grants, and National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Barbara was the first woman elected Treasurer of the Botanical Society of America (1977-81), and later served as President (1983). She was a Distinguished Fellow of the Botanical Society of America (2008), and a Fellow of the AAAS 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, People’s Republic of China. Locally, Barbara served as chair of the City of Davis Planning Commission, Board of Zoning Adjustment and co-chair of the grants committee of the Davis Regional Science Center.

Barbara 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 UCD, 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, Barbara also traveled to academic institutions throughout the US, where she gave talks on the challenges for women in the sciences and academia. She was active in the UCD 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.

Barbara and daughter Susan V. Webster established in 2006 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 in botany, horticulture and educational leadership. In 2020, Susan 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. 

Barbara 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, her son-in-law Hernán Navarrete; her sister Dorothy Sears and brother William Donahue; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces, and grandnephews. Her brother Robert Donahue preceded her in death. Grady pre-deceased her in 2005.

Judy Jernstedt
Calvin O. Qualset