EDITED BY KEITH JACKSON
These are edited extracts of a comprehensive obituary by Dr Rodrigo Cámara-Leret & Dr Barry Conn in Blumea, the Journal of plant taxonomy and plant geography, no 65. 2020. Link here to read the full obituary - KJ
LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS – When Dr David Gamman Frodin died in London in 2019 at the age of 79, the scientific community lost a brilliant individual and a giant of Papua New Guinean botany.
David was born in Chicago, USA, in 1940 and his love for botany began in Vermont where he spent endless summer hours walking in the woods.
In 1957, his father received a Fulbright scholarship to teach in Australia at the University of New South Wales. It was a pivotal year that engendered David’s love of tropical flora that lasted the rest of his life.
He completed his first degree in botany at the University of Chicago in 1963 and went on to complete two Master of Science degrees.
During this time, he wrote the first version of what became his monumental ‘Guide to Standard Floras of the World’, an annotated bibliography of the most useful complete floras, checklists and related works on the vascular plants of the world.
For a year from October 1965, David worked as a scientific officer in Papua New Guinea at the recently established Lae herbarium.
He travelled extensively through West Sepik, Madang, Morobe, Southern Highlands, West New Britain and Bougainville, collecting about 1,000 botanical specimens that significantly enhanced the herbarium.
After his contract ended, he visited herbaria in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne and made field trips in Australia.
In 1967, he received a scholarship to undertake doctoral studies at Cambridge University. David completed his PhD in 1971 and returned to PNG as lecturer in botany at UPNG, where he taught one of the first generation of botany students.
He remained in PNG until 1985, teaching, researching, writing and greatly enlarging the herbarium collection.
David loved taking students on field trips to share his enthusiasm and knowledge, and was liked both because of his erudition and because he treated Papua New Guineans as equals. He participated in several international expeditions and these were inspirational to him.
In 1978, the UPNG herbarium fire destroyed his early collections of specimens, many research notes and most of his books and was an enormous blow to him.
Fortunately, he had kept at home writings related to the Guide and he continued to work on it until its publication in 1984.
In 1983, David was appointed as UPNG’s associate professor in botany, but this period of his life was difficult.
He developed a medical condition – a product of poor diet and stress – that interfered with his work, and the university did not renew his contract.
During his 14 years in PNG, he published the first printed edition of his ‘Guide to Standard Floras of the World’ (Cambridge University Press) and educated many students who went on to become important figures in PNG science. They included:
The late Andrew Yuaieb, the first Papua New Guinean to obtain a forestry degree from Australian National University and later PNG’s head of forestry and ambassador to the European Union. He also became chancellor of UPNG
David Linge was the first Papua New Guinean to obtain a PhD (in plant diseases from the University of London)
Simon Saulei became director of the PNG Forest Research Institute in Lae and is professor of biology at UPNG
Mickie Benjamin, a BSc graduate from UPNG, was the only female Papua New Guinean to join the Division of Botany as a professional botanist
Karl Karenga joined the staff of the Bulolo Forestry College in 1977 to work as an assistant lecturer and later became manager of the Biology Program in Lae
Camilla Huxley, an expatriate MSc graduate, became a well-known expert on ant-plant interactions
David returned to the United States in 1985 and obtained a position as a research associate in the Department of Botany at Philadelphia Academy of Natural Science.
Later he became the collections manager, but in 1989 the Academy decided to eliminate his position.
He kept working on a revision to the Guide to Standard Floras and during the next three years took on assignments in the United Kingdom and Malaysia
David also returned to Papua New Guinea in 1992–93, where he completed an ethno-biological study of the Miyanmin tribe in the Telefomin District.
In 1993, David obtained a position as a senior scientific officer at the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London.
In 1994, he suffered a heart attack that led to major surgery. Years of inadequate diet in PNG, stress and insufficient exercise had compromised his health.
Nevertheless, he remained active and published 20 works from 1994–2001, including five world checklists on selected plant families.
In 2000, David turned 60, which meant he had to retire but continued to work as a contractor. however fewer funds meant his contract was not extended. Given his love for Kew, this constituted a major setback, which bothered him for a long time.
However, he continued to work at Kew as an honorary research associate for the rest of his life.
Being a perfectionist and a lover of detail, he never stopped researching and expanding his Guide to Standard Floras and the second edition of 1,100 pages was published in 2001. For this work, David was awarded the Engler Medal in Silver in 2002.
From 2016–2019, he collaborated enthusiastically on several projects, including building the first checklist to all the vascular plants of PNG.
David’s scholarly and elegant work will forever remain a classic in the history of botanical, zoological and ethnographic research in PNG.
During his career, he described a new genus, five new subgenera, 72 new species and 10 new infra-specific taxa.
As a mentor, he played an instrumental role in the career development of many Papua New Guinean scientists.
David was a gentleman, who treated everyone as his equal and was very generous with his time, materials and knowledge.
As a polymath and an avid reader, he loved to engage in intellectual conversations.
His memory was so exceptional that his Papua New Guinean colleagues defined him as ‘their Wikipedia before the Internet’.
Above all, his kindness, generosity and sharp intellect benefitted generations of botanists, and made David an extraordinary colleague and a wonderful friend.
Rodrigo Cámara-Leret was born in Spain and raised in Madrid, Cairo and Rio de Janeiro. He has an MSc in Biodiversity from the University of Leiden and a PhD in Biology from the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid. He was an Early Career Research Fellow at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in the UK (2016-2019). He was appointed as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Zurich in 2019 and has been a senior researcher since 2020.
Barry Conn's first appointment as a botanist was with the Lae Herbarium in 1974. Later he was herbarium curator and a lecturer at the Papua New Guinea Forestry College, Bulolo from 1976–79. He is a scientific advisor to the Food and Agriculture Organisation. In Australia, he was senior botanist at the National Herbarium of Victoria, botanist and principal research scientist at the National Herbarium of NSW and scientific editor of the journal Telopea from 2013 to 2015.