Obituary Professor John Webster (1925-2014)
The distinguished internationally renowned mycologist and former Head of the Department of Biological Sciences at Exeter University, UK and twice President of the British Mycological Society.
John’s mycological career began in the 1950s as a Lecturer at the University of Sheffield. He moved to the University of Exeter in 1969 where he served as Chair of Biological Sciences until 1986. John was President of the British Mycological Society in 1969 and again in 1996 – the centenary year of the BMS.
Few people have ever discovered more about fungi than John Webster. Driven by his immense enthusiasm for the whole scope of mycology, he wrote a superb textbook, ‘Introduction to the Fungi’, first published in 1970. He taught swathes of undergraduates and supervised many post-graduate research scientists. He was a hugely influential researcher, and hosted numerous international scholars.
He established Exeter University as a centre for Fungal Biology and helped form the International Mycological Association, and organized the first International Mycological Congress at Exeter in the early 1970s.
His legacy continues as the IMC has gone from strength to strength with the most recent event held in August 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand. Throughout his academic career he pursued a personal program of experiments with an enduring sense of inquisitiveness and exceptional vigour. His early research work was dominated by studies of fungi on grasses.
In the 1970s his interests centred on aquatic fungi, including the ‘Ingoldian hyphomycetes’. In the 1980s some of his most creative work was on ballistospore discharge. With Terence Ingold, and experts in electron microscopy, mathematics, and chemical engineering at Exeter, his clever experiments showed that a distinctive drop of fluid on the spore surface formed by the condensation of water vapor rather than the expansion of a gas-filled bubble. Micromanipulation experiments and physical calculations demonstrated that the motion of the fluid drop causes a rapid shift in the center of mass of the spore that launches it into the air. The range and depth of his scholarship is matched by few.
John was a superb teacher whose undergraduate mycology course introduced students to an amazing variety of fungi. The impact on students taught by Prof Webster was significant as a number of the undergraduates, postgraduates and post-docs went on to become leading mycologists in their own right. These include Prof Lynne Boddy (Cardiff University & BMS President 2009-2010); Prof. Nik Money (Miami University, Ohio, USA), Prof. Alan Rayner (University of Bath, another past BMS president), Prof, Naresh Magan (Cranfield University, BMS President 2011-2012) and Dr Clare Robinson (University of Manchester).
Prof. Nick Talbot (Deputy Vice Chancellor, Exeter University) commented on Professor Webster’s legacy and contribution: “John Webster was an important figure in the history of the University of Exeter and greatly influenced many scientists, including myself. He was also an outstanding fungal biologist and internationally distinguished leader in the field of mycology and was instrumental in formation of the International Mycological Association, which held its first congress here in Exeter. Importantly, John also believed passionately in public engagement in research and his fungal forays around Exeter were attended by literally hundreds of enthusiastic members of the public. He was both a natural historian of great talent and knowledge and a very engaging communicator of science.”
Prof Nik P. Money, recalls collecting live specimens of fruit bodies on trips with John to sites on Dartmoor to excavate stinkhorn eggs which were among the happiest memories of his three years at Exeter as his PhD student. Students in his mycology courses worked with cultures and fresh collections covering all of the groups of fungi described in his classic ‘Introduction to Fungi’ book, illustrated with marvelous line drawings. He also wrote a superb series of articles on teaching techniques co-authored by Roland Weber in the BMS journal ‘Mycologist’. Roland was co-author of the third edition of the textbook in 2007. John and Neville Dix co-authored a book on ‘Fungal Ecology’ in 1994, which is still well worth reading.
At the 2011 BMS annual Conference held at Exeter University it was both timely and fitting that the BMS, in recognition of his contributions to mycology generally and to the Society over many decades, conferred on him the President’s Award. This was presented by Lynne and Naresh, who both benefitted from his extensive mycological knowledge and expertise as students at Exeter in the 1970s.
John was predeceased by his wife, Brom, and they are survived by their children Christopher and Sarah, and three grandchildren.
Naresh Magan & Lynne Boddy