Professor Fakhri Bazzaz (1933-2008)
By Dr Athem Alsabti, University of London Observatory
Professor Fakhri Bazzaz – who died on 6 February 2008, aged 75 – was an Iraqi scientist and one of the first people to understand and predict that human activity was altering the integrity and functionality of the natural landscape.
He was born in Baghdad on 16th May 1933 into a respected Iraqi family distinguished by its social and political status (his brother Abdul Rahman Bazzaz became Secretary General of OPEC and Prime Minister of Iraq in 1965).
Fakhri Bazzaz received his degree in biology from Baghdad University in 1953. After graduation he was appointed Deputy Director of Rasafa Education District, in the east of Baghdad. At that time, several graduates from the USA and UK were returning home with PhD degrees. He was influenced by two prominent scientists in their own right - Abdul Karim Al-Khudhairy (a biologist), and Abdul Jabbar Abdullah (a meteorogist) who built the modern Baghdad University.
Bazzaz planned his life well, marrying his sweetheart Maarib Bakri, also a biologist, on 25th August 1958 and travelling on the same day to the United States on a scholarship from Iraq, to study for his PhD at the University of Illinois. He was awarded Masters and PhD degrees in 1963 and Maarib matched him with a PhD also in biology. Soon after graduation he was appointed as an Assistant Professor at the University. However, he had made up his mind to return to his home country with his family, and to work as a lecturer at Baghdad University.
He left Iraq again in 1966 to return to the United States and was appointed as Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois, and then Head of the Department of Plant Ecology, and Acting Director of what was then known as the School of Life Sciences. In these roles, he propelled Illinois to the centre of the scientific revolution underway in the biological sciences in the 1980s, by recruiting faculty who were skilled in molecular methods. These methods have since enabled scientists to manipulate and visualize the expression of individual genes to understand the mechanisms underlying development and physiology, as well as the rules governing ecology and evolution.
Professor Bazzaz became one of the world’s leading experts on ecological systems and climate change. He was one of twenty one leading experts on ecological systems and climate who sent a letter to the US President Bill Clinton, and Vice President Al Gore, in May 1997 urging them to take action on climate change and its rapid influence on plants, animals and other organisms.
In 1984 he moved to Harvard University to become the H.H. Timken Professor of Science (1988-1997), and then Mallinckrodt Professor of Biology (1997-2005). In 2003, he joined twelve other Iraqi scientists who were founding members of the Iraqi National Academy of Science.
Bazzaz’s achievements include more than 300 scientific papers, 18 invited chapters, and 6 books. His books covered the Ecology of Plants, Global Climate Change and Agricultural Production, Plant Resource Allocation, Plants in Changing Environment, Carbon Dioxide, Populations, and Communities.
He was a Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University (1981), Fellow of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (1987), Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation (1988), Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1989), and Fellow of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science (1993). He received the Humboldt Research Prize, Germany (1996), the King Faisal Prize for Biology (2000), a Leverhulme Professorship in British Universities (2000), and was a member of the Advisory Board of the Arab Science and Technology Foundation.
His energy and devotion to his work made him very popular among his students, whether in Iraq or the United States. Several distinguished Iraqi and Arab scientists were his undergraduate and postgraduate students. In the United States he had over 50 graduate and postgraduate students, some of who became leaders in their field and now hold prominent scientific positions.
Although he lived outside Iraq for long time, he was well known for his ability in Arabic calligraphy, and knowledge of Classical Arabic poetry. He had a most cheerful smile that was so welcoming that never left him to the end. His was a wonderful personality, energetic even at old age, witty, and a little eccentric.
I remember him visiting us in London in 1999 accompanied by his wife Maarib. The Association of Iraqi Academics held a party in his honour and awarded him honorary membership of the Association. He delivered an impressive lecture on his work on the environment, paying special attention to that of the Middle East.
In November 2003 he came again to London to join a group of 12 Iraqi Scientists meeting at the Royal Society, as founder members of the Iraqi National Academy of Science. It was a pleasure for me to work with him in the Science Committee and to have the opportunity to get to know him on this project. He was a formidable hard-working figure who achieved much with a smile. His place is secure in the history of Iraq and in international science.