John and Flora Berbee honored for careers in plant pathology

The Department of Plant Pathology had the honor of celebrating the careers and service of John and Flora Berbee at a reception at Blackhawk Country Club June 21, 2007. They were presented with the John and Flora Berbee Wisconsin Distinguished Graduate Fellowship in Turfgrass Pathology. The evening brought together friends from the department and family with over 60 people in attendance.

John and Flora Berbee’s relationship began nearly sixty years ago in a Yale University histology lab. She was a promising young plant pathologist; John Berbee was an equally promising future professor who benefited from a tutor. During World War II, Flora Kubsch distinguished herself at Western Michigan University becoming an instructor for one year after graduation. She earned her master’s degree at the University of Michigan before becoming a plant tissue culture technician at Yale. John Berbee received his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Toronto and Yale University respectively, before earning his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. The Berbees arrived in Madison in the 1950s when John joined the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Plant Pathology.

Professor Berbee served on many graduate committees in the areas of forest pathology, virology and mycology. With professor D.M. Benjamin, he developed and taught a course for forestry students to present management options for the control of forest diseases and insects. On a USAID assignment to the University of Ife in Nigeria, he taught the first graduating class all of their botanical courses. “Doc” Berbee was the resource person for the diagnosis and control of conifer seedling diseases in Wisconsin’s tree nurseries. One of the couple’s most vivid memories is of watching the dew at dawn carry tree-saving fungicide from treated seed coats to the base of seedlings where needed.

At the UW-Madison Flora Berbee taught zoology laboratory sections and worked on the problem of oak wilt for the Department of Plant Pathology. Both John and Flora conducted tests using radioactive isotopes to measure the spread of oak wilt. As a volunteer, she tissue cultured poplar clones to eliminate a destructive virus. During the 1980s, she maintained and conducted research in professor J.H. Andrews’ lab.

The Berbees are the parents of James, Peter and Mary Lee. They officially retired from their work in plant pathology in 1987 and enjoy an active life.