David J. De Laubenfels

1925 - 2016

David de Laubenfels, emeritus professor in the Department of Geography at Syracuse University, and a biogeographer who was an expert on tropical conifers, passed away on February 6, 2016, at the age of 90.

David John de Laubenfels was born   in 1925 in Pasadena, California. His father, Max Walker de Laubenfels, was a noted marine biologist which perhaps influenced the development of David’s interests in the natural world.

After serving in the Quartermaster Corps of the United States Army during the Second World War, de Laubenfels attended Colgate University, NY. As part of his undergraduate studies, he completed “A Geographic Study in the Hamilton Area, New York.” Having graduated in 1949 he moved to the University of Illinois for postgraduate studies. His master’s degree, completed in 1950, included a thesis entitled “Marketing Geography of Open Display Cold Storage Equipment” while his doctorate dissertation, completed in 1953, was entitled “The Temuco Region, A Geographic Study in South Central Chile.” Despite the subject matter of these three studies, he was already gravitating towards physical geography and, more particularly, to biogeography.

His first professional appointment was at the University of Georgia, starting as Assistant Professor in 1953 and moving to Associate Professor in 1958. In 1959 he joined the faculty at Syracuse University where he remained for the rest of his career, attaining the rank of full Professor in 1971 and retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1993.

De Laubenfels studied the variation of vegetation from place to place. Among his many publications in biogeography are the books A Geography of Plants and Animals (1970) and Mapping the World’s Vegetation: Regionalization of Formations and Flora (1975).

He carried out various studies in the United States, publishing articles on the soil and vegetation of New York State, the characteristics of the Ozark Upland in the Midwest, the nature and boundaries of the Corn Belt, conifers of southeast, and the semi-tropical woodland of Georgia. He also did a comparative study of Australian forests with vegetation of similar climatic areas in the Americas.

However, it is for his work on the taxonomy of conifers, particularly tropical conifers, that de Laubenfels is known throughout the world. In carrying out his studies, he traveled whenever possible to the actual locations where the plants were established so that he could see them in their many natural growth forms. He had a particular interest in the south Pacific, carrying out field expeditions to locations including New Caledonia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Moluccas. New Caledonia was of particular interest due to the rare conifers there; on one of his expeditions he discovered a parasitic conifer and published his finds in Science (1959). He also studied conifers in Latin America including Costa Rica, Venezuela, Peru and Uruguay.

His first major taxonomic revision in conifers was published in 1969: “A Revision of the Malesian and Pacific Rainforest Conifers, I Podocarpaceae.” In 1972, his chapter on “Gymnospermes” published in Flore de la Nouvelle-Caledonie et Dependances was a seminal piece of work because of the importance and uniqueness of this group of plants. Another major taxonomic publication, Coniferales, Flora Malesiana was published in 1988. Over the years, de Laubenfels identified over 100 new species in the tropics; in the photograph above he is examining Podocarpus beecherae, one of those he named. He also had one species named in his honor – Araucaria laubenfelsii, commonly known as the De Laubenfels’ araucaria – which is native to southern New Caledonia.

Outside of his taxonomic and plant geography work, de Laubenfels had a wide variety of interests on topics such as the geographic origins of human development and the origins of language. He also published a book on physics entitled It’s Hard to Believe in Infinity (1992). Meanwhile in another work, “Where Sherman Passed By” (1957), he highlighted General Sherman’s march through Georgia, walking the entire route using the maps of his great-grandfather, John (Rziha) Laube de Laubenfels, chief topographical engineer for one of Sherman’s columns.

De Laubenfels joined the American Association of Geographers in 1949 and was involved in the Regional Division that included New York State, presenting papers at regional meetings including “Plant Geography Versus Vegetation Geography” (1962) and “The Variations of Vegetation from Place to Place” (1968).

He was also a member of the American Conifer Society and British Conifer Society. His love of nature was reflected locally too: he was a long-time member of the Onondaga chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

David de Laubenfels will be remembered for his major contributions to biogeography and his unparalleled expertise in tropic conifers. He had a remarkable career, with academic publications spanning from 1950 to 2015 when he was in his 90th year.

He is survived by his loving wife, Janet, three daughters, five step-children, several grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, as well as three siblings. He was predeceased by his son, Eric.