Dr. David E. Fairbrothers, who died October 29, 2012, had a long, illustrious career in plant science, plant conservation and education. He was also a tireless advocate for the preservation of rare and endangered flora in the United States, and especially in New Jersey.
David Fairbrothers was born 24 September 1925 and grew up in Absecon, New Jersey. He served in Europe during World War II as Sergeant Squad Leader in the 94th infantry.
During the Battle of the Bulge he nearly lost his legs to frostbite, but refused amputation and eventually regained their use.
Following the war, he received his bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University in 1950. He attended graduate school at Cornell University and earned his master’s degree in 1952 and a Ph.D. in 1954.
David started at Rutgers as an Instructor in the Department of Botany 1954. He stayed at Rutgers for 34 years, climbing the ranks, to the highest academic position attainable, Distinguished Professor II.
He served as the first chair of the new Department of Biological Sciences in 1981–1982.
Thirteen years after David’s retirement, I was hired as his replacement.
David was integral in the growth and activity of the Rutgers University’s Chrysler Herbarium, first serving as Curator and eventually becoming Director. Over this time period he tripled the herbarium collections from about 40,000 specimens to over 120,000 specimens.
David recognized that the specimens at CHRB served as an important resource for assessing the distribution of rare plants in New Jersey. In 1973 he and Mary Hough produced the first “red book” of rare and endangered vascular plants for a U.S. state.
The New Jersey Red Book preceded the 1973 Federal Endangered Species Act and inspired other states in the nation to assess species’ rarity and compile similar documents.
The Fairbrothers’ lab conducted pioneering research using immunological methods and electrophoresis to compare plant proteins and elucidate evolutionary relationships. At that time, in the period prior to DNA sequencing, these were cutting-edge methods in plant systematics.
As an undergraduate botany student in Sweden, I had already read and cited David’s papers on serology-based studies when I was investigating topics for my undergraduate research thesis.
A few years ago, I handed David my marked up copy of his paper from those years in the late 1980s, showing him how his research had become internationally known and was included in my early work.
In addition to research in systematics, David and his students conducted floristic works in New Jersey and documented the introduction of non-native species to New Jersey and the United States, and David was the one that found the first herbarium record of the invasive Japanese stiltgrass in our country.
David served on numerous scientific committees for the National Science Foundation, The New York Botanical Garden, and American Institute of Biological Sciences.
He also served as advisor to the Pinelands Commission, member of the Board of Trustees for the Willowwood Arboretum Foundation, and as advisor for New Jersey Rare and Endangered Plant Species and Critical Habitats Program of the Natural Heritage Program in New Jersey.
David advised 29 Master’s and doctoral students. He, and his wife, Marge, were wonderful mentors to his students, fostering significant individual development as researchers and as honorable human beings.
The learning environment created by David, and the unconditional support towards his graduate students, provided an outstanding place for young botanists to grow and develop.
David received Rutgers’ Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1981, the Rutgers’ Presidential Award for Distinguished Public Service in 1983, the Rutgers University Medal in 1988, as well as the Botanical Society of America medal.
With the passing of David Fairbrothers, the botanical community worldwide has lost a tireless advocate for plant biodiversity conservation and exploration. He was a fantastic mentor and champion for botanical education at all levels, from outreach toward the general public to graduate education, and he was a dear friend to many of us.
I feel lucky that I got to know David, and that I had the opportunity to be inspired by his strong dedication to science, ethics, and service to the world.
He will be deeply missed by his students, us colleagues, and the rare plants of New Jersey and the world.
[Modified from obituary published in TAXON 2013 by Sasha Eisenman & Lena Struwe.]