Margaret Barr Bigelow at the MSA Foray at the Bent Creek Experimental Forest, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina, taken Saturday 17 Jul 2004. Photo by Meredith Blackwell.
Margaret E. Barr Bigelow, was born in 1923 in Elkhorn, Manitoba. She spent her adult life working on a great diversity of fungi, daily observing more ascomycete diversity than most mycologists see in a lifetime. Margaret received a Bachelor of Science (1950) and Master of Science (1952) from the University of British Columbia. She was a student of Lewis E. Wehmeyer at the University of Michigan, where her 207-page dissertation, Taxonomic position of the genus Mycosphaerella as shown by comparative developmental studies, earned her a doctorate in 1956. In Ann Arbor she made lifelong friends among her fellow graduate students and married one of them. She and Howard Elson Bigelow were married in Jun 1956, just a week before they completed their doctorates at the University of Michigan.
No teaching positions were available the year they were married, so she and Howard spent a summer collecting fungi in northern Maine, and she, along with Howard, went to Montreal where she worked as a National Research Council fellow in the Botanical Institute at the University of Montreal. The next fall (1957) Howard was hired as an instructor in botany at the University of Massachusetts. Because of rules against nepotism, Margaret could not have an official appointment in the department. However she was allowed to be part of a women’s auxiliary, which let her teach and do research for many years for modest compensation. Appointed year-to-year as an instructor beginning in 1957, she rose rapidly to the rank of professor after nepotism laws were revised, eventually serving as Ray Ethan Torrey Professor (1986–1989). She and Howard had been at the University of Massachusetts 30 years at the time of Howard’s death in 1987, and in 1989 Margaret moved to Sidney, British Columbia.
Upon first meeting Margaret, Jean Boise Cargill (graduate student from 1979-1984)asked her why she chose to study Loculoascomycetes; her reply was “because they are so impossible.” In a letter, Jean wrote that Margaret was a person whose “lack of pretense made her very accessible to professional colleagues around the globe. Margaret showed the same respect for the eccentric solo researcher as the lauded university professor. She instilled in me the notion that it is not the postmark that counts; it is the quality of the work.” Jean remembers that, in placing a high value on publishing one’s work, Margaret thought that “even the most brilliantly conceived notion was rendered worthless unless it made it into print.”
Margaret volunteered both time and money to her academic field. She served as program chairwoman for the Mycological Society of America (MSA) at the joint American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) meetings of 1963 and again in 1973. In 1987 she was chairwoman of the entire AIBS meeting. She served as editor-in-chief of Mycologia, the journal of the MSA (1976–1980), and she served the Society as vice president (1979–1980) and president (1981–1982). In 1992 she was elected distinguished mycologist by the MSA. Although her primary society was the MSA, she also belonged to the American Institute of Biological Societies, International Association of Plant Taxonomists and British Mycological Society.
She established several endowments: The Howard E. and Margaret E. Barr Bigelow Endowed Fund for the Life Sciences Collection for biological sciences and geosciences journals, W.E.B. Du Bois Library, University of Massachusetts, and Howard E. Bigelow Mentor Fund and Margaret E. Barr Bigelow Mentor Fund for student travel to annual meetings of the MSA. In 1989 about 40,000 specimens of the University of Massachusetts Herbarium, which contained the bulk of Margaret’s and Howard’s collections, were transferred to the New York Botanical Garden. Other Margaret E. Barr collections are on deposit with the Canada Department of Agriculture, Ottawa (DAOM, about 5000 specimens) and the University of British Columbia (about 250 specimens), with a few types and later collections added to the holdings at New York. The unpublished notes and unidentified collections that remained following her death were transferred to the Field Museum in 2008.
She published about 150 scientific works that provided broad-scale coverage of many groups of ascomycetes. Because of her expertise she was sought as a collaborator by many mycologists. Several book-length works are among the most detailed references available and provide diagrams and descriptions of thousands of forgotten fungi belonging to groups that few people now know. Her volumes on the loculoascomycetes, pyrenomycetous hymenoascomycetes, Melanommatales and Pleosporales (Barr 1987, Barr 1990a, b, c) continue to be important references for North American collections as well as provide comparisons for specimens from around the world. After her retirement from the University of Massachusetts, she returned to her native British Columbia where she worked regular hours daily for many years on monographic studies of ascomycetes. She collaborated with a number of mycologists and offered her insights on taxon sampling for molecular studies in a modern context. Collectors from around the world sent her specimens for identifications. She studied fungi from as far away as Hawaii, China, Australia, Japan and Spain, as well as near her home in British Columbia. Her last paper was on a new species from oaks in western Canada, published late in 2007. Her vast experience put Margaret in a unique position to make transfers and to describe new species. She has been honored by having fungi named after her, including at least five genera (Barrella, Barria, Barrina, Barrmaelia, Mebarria), one fossil fungus (Margaretbarromyces) and species too numerous to list. Barr trained two doctoral students at the University of Massachusetts (Jean Boise-Cargill and Scott Schatz). After retirement she continued to serve as mentor to several generations of young mycologists. She died in 2008 in Sidney, British Columbia.
Excerpted from Mycologia March/April 2009 vol. 101 no. 2 281-283
by Meredith Blackwell, Emory Simmons & Sabine Huhndorf