Webb, David Allardice (1912–94), botanist and marine biologist, was born 12 August 1912 in Dublin, only son of George Randolph Webb (d. 1929), mathematician, philosopher, and fellow of TCD, and his wife Ella (née Ovenden) (Isabella Webb (qv)), a pioneer, with Dr Kathleen Lynn (qv), of children's medicine in Dublin and founder of the Children's Sunshine Home, Foxrock, Co. Dublin. He had one sister.
Educated at Castle Park preparatory school, Dalkey, Webb went on to Charterhouse, the public school in Surrey, where he became a foundation and senior scholar and was awarded a leaving exhibition. At Charterhouse he was inspired by his biology teacher Percy Chapman's love of taxonomy and marine invertebrates. He returned to Ireland and entered TCD in 1931 to study natural sciences. In his final examinations he obtained first-class honours (1935) and a gold medal for his outstanding scholarship. Although he became internationally renowned as a botanist, his original discipline was zoology, particularly the chemical composition of sea water and the biochemistry of marine invertebrates. He obtained a Ph.D. (Dubl.) in 1937, transferring the same year to Cambridge, where he continued his marine studies and obtained a second doctorate (1939). By 1940 he had published several papers: three in Nature, and one on the nitro-chromic reaction and its applications in the measurement of alcohol in exhaled breath – later developed as the breathalyser test – in the Scientific Proceedings of the Royal Dublin Society, xxi (1936), 281–4.
Returning to the zoology department at TCD in 1940, he was contacted by Henry Dixon (qv), then professor of botany, and offered a lecturing position, which he gladly accepted. His rise to prominence in botany was swift. He immediately set about including field trips as part of the undergraduate botany course; this was unusual for the time, and many trips were made on bicycles. He also began one of his most enduring works, An Irish flora – a field guide to the flora of Ireland, published in 1943. In its seventh edition by 1996, it remains the standard reference on the Irish flora. One of the greatest Irish naturalists, Robert Lloyd Praeger (qv), was reportedly content that an heir had been found to take on the mantle of recording the flora of Ireland.
Appointed assistant lecturer (1945–7), then lecturer (1947–9), Webb began to pursue an interest in Irish saxifrages and the Irish flora in a wider European context. He published several monographs of the Irish Saxifraga species in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy and undertook a tour of the Continent in 1959 to study and collect the saxifrages native to north-west Europe. This culminated in the production of a scholarly monograph of the genus (with Richard J. Gornall) in 1989. Many of the specimens he brought back from that trip are in cultivation in the botanic gardens of TCD and Cambridge. In 1949, together with G. Frank Mitchell (qv), he organised and led an International Vegetation Excursion around Ireland, occasioning many frank exchanges with European phytosociologists on the controversial issue of plant community classification. He was appointed professor of plant biology in 1949 and a fellow of TCD in the same year. Two years later he was awarded a D.Sc. from Dublin University (1951) on the basis of his published works, succeeding Dixon in the university chair of botany in 1954.
It was also in 1954 that he began one of his most famous and important contributions to the botanical world. During a break in the proceedings of the fourteenth International Botanical Congress in Paris, at a café near the Sorbonne and under the influence of ‘too much Calvados’ (Jebb, 173), Webb and several British botanists ‘with an optimism born of ignorance’ (ibid.) discussed in earnest the idea of a flora for the whole of Europe. This was a massive undertaking involving the persuasion and management of over 150 taxonomists, and similar plans had foundered before.
This undertaking however, succeeded. Flora Europaea was published in five volumes (1964–80), and David Webb was widely acknowledged as one of the driving forces in the project. As well as general editorship duties, he wrote 1,022 species accounts, edited forty-three families, and checked the geographical distributions for every species. Fluent in French, Italian, and German, he acquired a reading knowledge of a further twelve European languages (including Russian) to carry out this work. Widely regarded as one of the twentieth century's most significant works of plant taxonomic scholarship, Flora Europaea is noted for its clarity and succinct presentation, both attributes of Webb himself. His huge contribution was acknowledged by his fellow editors when the project was completed.
A personal chair, professor of systematic botany, was created for him (1966); after he retired in 1979, he became honorary professor of systematic botany. He became a senior fellow (1978) then an emeritus fellow (1979) of TCD. He was curator (1950–83) of the TCD herbarium, and contributed enormously, both personally and financially, to making it a superb taxonomic reference for Irish and international botanists. Even after he retired he worked from his office in the herbarium, typing away on a manual typewriter, and publishing a history of the herbarium in 1991.
Webb's was not a traditional retirement; he continued to travel in Ireland and abroad on botanical excursions and to publish botanical works. As a long-time resident of the College he took an active interest in preserving its traditions and recording its history. Monumental works such as Trinity College Dublin, 1592–1952: an academic history (with R. B. McDowell, 1982) and Flora of Connemara and the Burren (with Maura Scannell, 1983) were produced in the early days of his official retirement.
He was awarded several distinctions including MRIA (1945), an honorary D.Sc. from Stirling University (1976), and the Boyle medal of the RDS (1982); and was a foreign member of the Linnean Society of London and president of the Botanical Society of the British Isles (1989–91).
Though Webb never married, he had a huge circle of friends of all ages whom he visited, and who visited him, regularly. He was a fine lecturer, clear, well prepared, and amusing; he encouraged his students to question everything. Generous and loyal to his friends, he gave common-sense advice when asked for it. He had a reputation as a superb entertainer, producing from a tiny kitchen in his college rooms fine meals served with fine wines. He adored good company and was a consummate conversationalist. A striking man in his early years, tall and thin with red hair, he had in later years an equally famous image: dressed in denim jeans and jacket with a crown of wild white hair, he was always recognisable. He was sometimes accused of misogyny; those who knew him best dismissed this notion, as he had several female friends of whom he was very fond. He did not suffer fools (male or female) gladly, and disliked wishy-washyness of any sort. He could be brusque and, on occasion, rude to people who irritated him (though he mellowed somewhat in old age) and his world remained one where men enjoyed the exclusiveness of clubs in a predominantly Anglo-Irish, academic milieu. He became frail in the months before his death, commenting that at least he was ‘dying from the feet up, and not the head down’ (Jebb, 174). He died in a car crash near Oxford on 26 September 1994. The warmth and number of tributes to his memory are testaments both to his academic achievements and to the deep affection in which he was held.
A bibliography of his work was published in Watsonia in 1996 and amended in 1998. It lists some 234 publications. A portrait by Andrew Festing, featuring a pot of saxifrages on the desk beside him and a decanter of wine behind, hangs in the senior common room at TCD.