Botany alumnus Donald Ugent passes away

1933 - 2011


UgentDonald Ugent, 77, botanist and professor emeritus at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIU-C), died Friday, Sept. 2, 2011, in Carbondale. He was born Dec. 20, 1933, in Chicago, and grew up in Milwaukee, where he married Vivian Balkansky (UW-1962 BS Elementary Ed.) on July 15, 1962.


Professor Ugent received his B.S. (1956), M.S.(1961), and Ph.D. (1966) in botany, with a minor in genetics, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW). Ugent spent 1962 to1963 in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, collecting potatoes and other plants, supported by a National Science Foundation grant obtained with his advisor and principal investigator Hugh Iltis, on the biosystematics and crop evolution of potatoes. A Rockefeller Foundation grant funded Ugent’s Ph.D. work in Mexico. He was also a post-doc at UW (1966-1967).


Professor Ugent was internationally known as an ethno and economic botanist, taxonomist, geneticist, and authority on the origins of wild and cultivated potatoes. He collected more than 1000 specimens, mostly flowering plants, also ferns, mosses, lichens and soil fungi, in South America, Mexico, the Virgin Islands and ten of the United States. Professor Ugent's paper "The Potato," was a Science cover story (1970). He continued to publish papers prolifically throughout his life. Professor Ugent was a founding member of the Tropical Studies Committee, of the American Universities for International Education (AUIE), serving as an administrator and instructor in courses held in Belize, until 1977. The University of Chicago listed him in the Directory of Latin Americanists throughout his career. He served as treasurer of the Society for Economic Botany (1991-1997) and editor of Economic Botany (1999-2004). He founded and edited the online journal Ethnobotanical Leaflets (1997-2010).


Ugent introduced over 60 wild species and 40 cultivated species into potato breeding programs in the United States. He translated two works by Carlos Ochoa of Lima, on Peruvian and Bolivian potatoes, from Spanish into English. Peru and CONCYTEC (Consejo Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación Technológica) honored him in 2006 upon publication of La Etnobotanica del Peru, one of many projects of 50 years collaboration with Ochoa. As archaeo-botanist for several sites in Peru, Ugent identified a 10,000 year old potato, in one of his frequent collaborations with Sheila and Tom Pozorski, and he became the world's expert on identification of archeological coca.


Professor Ugent was the keynote speaker and recognized as the father of starch grain identification for archaeo-botany, at the Workshop on Ancient Starch at Australian Museum in Sydney (1998).


During his career, Ugent described three species and a section new to science- Epilobium × wisconsinense (Onagraceae) Ugent, Solanum ferreyrae (Solanaceae) Ugent, Solanum roei (Solanaceae) Ugent & Iltis, and Solanum sect. Regmandra (Solanaceae) Ugent ex D'Arcy. Three plants bear his name: Hippeastrum ugentii (Amaryllidaceae) Ochoa; Puya ugentiana (Bromeliaceae) L.B.Sm.; and Solanum ugentii (Solanaceae) Hawkes & K.A.Okada.


Professor Ugent joined Richard Evans Schultes in providing talks on the topic ‘Centers of Longevity’ for a public ethnobotany lecture series at Massachusetts University Hospital in Boston. Ugent also guest lectured at Harvard and at institutions around the world. He used his extensive video and computer skills to make television modules on the origins of crop plants for teaching purposes. He also reviewed proposals for the Center for Field Research (Earthwatch).


As professor of botany at SIU-C (1968-2001), he was curator of the herbarium and Margaret Kaeiser Memorial Library. Ugent had expanded the Southern Illinois Herbarium (SIU) holdings from 60,000 to over 300,000 specimens by 1993. At SIU-C Dr. Ugent also taught taxonomy, plant geography and ethnobotany, was adjunct curator of botany at University Museum, active in the Center for Archeological Investigations, and a student advisor for International Programs. He served on committees in Botany (Plant Biology), Anthropology, Zoology, Plant and Soil Science, Geography, and Physiology, finishing 43 students. At the time of his passing, he was an outside reviewer for dissertations and promotions for Quaid-l-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan.


He was a loving husband to Vivian for 49 years, father of three, Risa (Gregory) Eaton of South Riding, Va., and Amy and Jonathan (Tamela) Ugent of Carbondale, and grandfather to Nora, Maggie and Sam Eaton. He is also survived by extended family and friends all over the world. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the charity of the donor’s choice. Cards or letters of condolence can be sent to the family home: Mrs. Vivian Ugent and family, 2004 Norwood Dr., Carbondale, IL 62901.;