September 13, 2011

Accomplished former SIUC botanist Ugent dies

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A former Southern Illinois University Carbondale faculty member world renowned for his research in economic botany is being remembered as a leader in his field and as an educator with a zest for teaching.

Donald Ugent, a botanist and faculty member at SIUC from 1968 to 2002, died Sept. 2 in Carbondale.  He was 77.

During his nearly 25 years at the University, Ugent studied commonly cultivated food plants, such as corn, potatoes and gourds, researching their evolution, reproduction and economic values in ways that crossed over into anthropology, as well.  He focused many of his studies in South America and authored or co-authored several acclaimed books on plant cultivation in those societies.

“He really was a leader in his field and wrote several important books,” said Dale Vitt, chair of the Department of Plant Biology at SIUC, who worked with Ugent.  “He studied the economic relevance of certain plants, their origins and how they changed after people began cultivating them.”

Ugent’s work, for instance, might examine the role corn played in society in Peru 800 years ago, said Andrew Wood, professor of plant biology at SIUC, who met Ugent in 1996 after being hired.

Wood said Ugent’s work, starting in the 1960s, likely made him among the first to study the intersections of plants, economics and their anthropologic significance.  Ugent, he said, was never happier than when he was participating in a field dig, looking for clues on how ancient people used plants in their daily lives.

“Don was a fantastic scientist and a fun guy to be around,” Wood said.  “He really enjoyed his work, and it was hard not to get excited when you talked to him about his travels.  He had a real understanding of plants, he went to fun places, and he brought that all back to his classroom.”

Before coming to SIUC, Ugent spent several years in South America in countries including Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where he collected potato specimens and other plants.  He also worked in Mexico just prior to his joining the University.

Ugent’s work brought him international scientific acclaim in the areas of economics, botany, taxonomy and plant genetics.  He amassed a large inventory of plant specimens and was an authority on wild potatoes and their cultivation history.  One of his research papers, titled simply “The Potato,” was on the cover of the journal Science in 1970.  He helped found several scientific research groups and journals, and served five years as editor of the journal Economic Botany.  He described three new species, among many other scientific accomplishments.  Three plants bear his name.

At SIUC, Ugent served as curator of the herbarium, expanding its holdings by five times.  He taught classes on taxonomy, plant geography and ethnobotany at the University while also serving as adjunct curator of botany at the University Museum.

To his colleagues, Ugent was a consummate educator, as well as an accomplished researcher.

“He was certainly a mentor to me as a young faculty member,” Wood said.  “Don was always very helpful in helping me learn about directing students and how to approach teaching classes and give a good lecture.  He could give a great scientific talk, which isn’t easy.  But he was able to tell you a fun story while you were learning something.”

Ugent served on graduate and doctorate committees for 43 students. At the time of his death, he was an outside dissertations reviewer for a Pakistani university.