Obituary — Michael McCulloch Martin

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Michael McCulloch Martin, 87, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology, died April 18 while resting at home surrounded by family.

He was born in Junction City, Kansas, in 1935, during one of the worst storms of the Dust Bowl Era, and spent his childhood on the military bases where his father served as an officer of the U.S. Army.

Michael McCulloch Martin
Michael McCulloch Martin

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1955, and a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in 1958. He joined the University of Michigan in 1959 as an instructor of chemistry, receiving tenure in that department before moving to biology for the rest of his career.

His unique ability to deeply understand both chemistry and biology were great strengths in his research on the biochemistry, physiology and nutritional ecology of plant-eating insects.

An early, major focus of this research was the role that ingested fungi played in the capacity of insects to digest cellulose. This seemingly obscure topic came into popular consciousness in 1970 when Washington Post columnist Joe Alsop used one of Michael’s papers as the basis for an editorial titled “The Elegant Economy of the Ant is a Lesson for Sluggard Man.”

Michael collected leafcutter ants for that paper with an ingenious contraption he helped invent — described in his 1972 paper “An Apparatus for Collecting Ants in Large Quantities” — on a trip to Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal Zone, simultaneously the site of his honeymoon with Joan Stadler, a biologist whom he married in 1965.

This romantic approach to scientific adventure, also evident in a yearlong expedition to Africa studying termites, and in countless combination backpacking-collecting trips in the United States, reflected the degree to which his professional life was shaped by childhood ambitions of becoming a naturalist and explorer.

The authenticity of his curiosity, and the creative ingenuity he used to satisfy it, generated a quality of pure wonder that made his intellectual passions an inspiration to those with whom he shared them — students and collaborators alike.

He chaired the Department of Biological Sciences from 1982-85, facilitating the delicate process of division that produced the currently existing departments of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

He then served as assistant dean, and director of the Honors Program in LSA. In this role he developed a popular course on writing for biologists, which led to several fellowships and awards for excellence in writing and teaching, and culminated in his selection as an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in 1996.

Martin retired in 1999, after 40 years of university service, and published his final paper in 2001 with his longtime collaborator Ray Barbehenn. He then turned his intellectual energies from science to history, first writing a memoir of his childhood, then a second book on the reconciliation of Union and Confederate units within the structure of the U.S. Army after the Civil War.

He was an avid backpacker, birdwatcher and canoeist, a delightful storyteller, an indomitable source of good humor, and a dearly missed companion to his friends and family.

He is survived by his beloved wife of 56 years, Joan Stadler Martin, with whom he co-authored 17 academic papers and produced two children, Jeff (Minghwa) and Linda (Asia), and four grandchildren, Ana, Will, Ben and Katherine. He leaves behind a world that is better for his journey through it, and a 3-acre plot of mixed forest and grassland that is free of garlic mustard.

A private burial will take place at The Preserve at All Saints Cemetery in Waterford Township, Michigan, a cemetery dedicated to natural green burials.

Submitted by Nie Family Funeral Home

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