Obituary: Sir David Smith, botanist and former Principal of Edinburgh University

Sir David Smith, botanist and educationalist. Born: 21 May 1930 in Port Talbot, Wales. Died: 29 June 2018, aged 88.

Sir David Smith
Sir David Smith

Sir David Smith, who has died aged 88, was an eminent botanist and educationalist who gained numerous academic distinctions and held several prestigious appointments. Knighted in 1986, between 1987 and 1994 he was Principal of Edinburgh University before becoming President of Wolfson College, Oxford University until 2000.

He was President of the Scottish Association for Marine Science at Dunstaffnage near Oban whose status as a leading world marine biology research centre he helped develop, having played an important role in negotiations to ensure its continued presence at that site.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In 1974 he was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society and later of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which led to his involvement in the work of a number of research councils in a variety of scientific disciplines. He was President of the Linnean Society of London between 2000 and 2003, the oldest active biological society in the world, having been founded in 1788, and was awarded its Gold Medal for botany.

His main area of expertise was in the field of the biology of symbiosis, the study of the mutually beneficial relationships between organisms, in the course of which he investigated those existing between algae and fungi and algae and animals. He became a leading authority on the subject, writing many books and academic papers.

Although his tenure as Principal of Edinburgh University was a challenging one, he met those challenges successfully and was held in high regard, not only for the solutions he achieved but for the respectful and measured approach he brought to the table, which often required opposing interests to be reconciled as effectively as possible.

When he began at Edinburgh, the University Grants Council had imposed a financial penalty on it for failings in its financial management systems, causing a serious financial problem.

At about the same time, significant changes to universities nationwide were being introduced, some involving cuts, which resulted in important reorganisation having to be undertaken. This meant he was faced with a range of difficult decisions, from areas of general policy to personal issues with staff.

His focus in dealing with these problems was based on his desire to create an atmosphere to enable all to fulfil their potential. His professional dedication, integrity, and skill as a mediator facilitated negotiations and earned him the respect of all.

He made graduation ceremonies memorable occasions, using his oratorical skills to address the audience engagingly on topical issues affecting the university. Similarly, at Wolfson his principal motivation was as an “enabler” to let students and staff achieve their aims, reflecting his commitment to education.

David Cecil Smith was born in Port Talbot, South Wales, the younger son of William and Elva, and younger brother of Frank. William was a mining engineer and Elva a teacher. In the 1920s, due to the economic crisis, the family went to the Sinai desert, where his father secured work initially as mining engineer and later as manager of a manganese mine. They would remain there, apart from periods of home leave, until the end of the Second World War, manganese being essential to steel production and, consequently, for armament production. During one such period of leave Sir David was born and he accompanied his parents back out to the Sinai, where he lived until aged almost five.

He then returned to Port Talbot to live with grandparents and an aunt while he attended primary school locally. For secondary education, he and his brother went as boarders to Colston’s School, Bristol, and when his parents returned to live in London he attended St Paul’s School in the Hammersmith district of the capital. There an inspiring biology teacher’s field trips first gave him an interest in the subject.

Although he initially considered studying medicine, Sir David opted for botany at Queen’s College, Oxford University, where another figure, tutor Jack Harley, further fed his interest while becoming a father figure to him following the death of his father in his first year.

He signalled his potential by obtaining the only first class honours degree of his year before undertaking a postgraduate course at Upsaala University, Sweden. Next he obtained his D.Phil. at Queen’s, which he had to complete in two years as National Service in the army was imminent.

The first part of his National Service was spent in Germany while for the latter part he joined the Intelligence Corps as part of a group devising strategies to deal with the possible future use of atomic weaponry. Afterwards he undertook Research Fellowships at Queens and at the University of California, before becoming a lecturer at the Department of Agricultural Science at Oxford University. Later he was Royal Society Research Fellow at Wadham College, Oxford, and from the early Seventies to 1980 he held the Chair of Botany at Bristol University. Next he returned to Oxford as Sibthorpian Professor of Rural Economy and Head of the Department of Agricultural Science.

In 1965 in Bicester he married Scotswoman Lesley Mutch, a doctor with whom he spent almost 53 happy years and had three children, Bryony, Adam and Cameron. The couple returned to Edinburgh to live in the Morningside district in 2000, which enabled them to continue enjoying their cottage at Balquhidder.

Sir David was devoted to his family, by whom he was much loved. He and his wife particularly enjoyed the Edinburgh Festival, especially experimental theatre.

Having been a pianist when younger, Sir David’s other interests included music, where his tastes ranged from classical to jazz, while he also enjoyed gardening. He was also a committed humanist.

His modest manner and lack of airs and graces despite his many achievements endeared him to everyone with whom he came into contact. He also possessed a wonderful sense of humour as well as an exceptional ability to bring people together despite different backgrounds and standpoints.

Sir David is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren Matthew, Jack, Ryuki, Sachika and Taiho.