Herbarium of University of Coimbra

Abílio Fernandes

Abílio Fernandes (born 19 October 1906, Maçaínhas, Guarda – died 16 de Outubro de 1994, Coimbra) had a long life studying plants, lecturing and directing botany at Coimbra University. As soon as he graduated in 1927, he started teaching at the Instituto Botânico Júlio Henriques. For ten years, he gained the experience that saw him through a major challenge – the sudden death of the director, Luís Carrisso. He would have been the immediate natural successor of Carrisso, but for the fact that he was not a full professor by then and new appointments were suspended between 1936-42. Nevertheless, many were the responsibilities he took and in 1942 he became the 16th director of botany at Coimbra for the following 32 years.

Those were days when the dictatorship of Salazar tried both to silence the opposition and to smooth this with some development in the country. A period of modern construction started at the University of Coimbra and Fernandes made sure botany would benefit from this mood. A major part of the monastery of S. Bento was, at last, allocated to botany and two teaching laboratories were built outside the main building. There was enough room then for the library that had grown substantially, for a museum, a lecture theatre, many offices and a large space for the herbarium. An interesting facet of this refurbishment was the furniture itself, all of the same style, large cupboards desks and tables in solid wood made in parts then assembled in the rooms. In the garden much was done, from replacement of many tons of soil to the construction of staircases, walls, railings, the cold house, and the memorials to the two previous directors, Henriques and Carrisso.

During Fernandes’ time, the herbarium more than doubled its contents. He resuscitated the strategy of Henriques and organised many ex-students to collaborate with the Sociedade Broteriana and send to Coimbra specimens from all over Africa and Portugal. He, himself, organised many collecting trips throughout Portugal. In 1959, he also became director of the Centro de Botânica da Junta de Investigações do Ultramar till he fully retired in 1974. Much of his African botanical input was through this overseas centre of research in Lisbon. He never did much botanising in Africa himself but through the Centro de Botânica he sent many to collect there, including botanist from Coimbra, such as Jorge Paiva.

In spite of all this administrative activity, Fernandes kept up a constant flow of research publications (c. 350), most on the cytotaxonomy of Narcissus. He was the biologist who, for the first time, demonstrated that heterochromatin was totally or partially inert. He also maintained for c. 20 years a project on counting the chromosome numbers of the Portuguese flora. Wild seeds were grown in the garden and the voucher specimens were included in the herbarium together with some slides of squashes of root tips.

After he retired in 1974, Abílio Fernandes continued working in his office and wrote many more articles, often about historical aspects of botany at Coimbra. He diligently acknowledged all contributions he could remember from the staff of the Instituto Botânico.

During all his working life, Fernandes had the presence of his wife, Rosette Batarda, a plant taxonomist at Coimbra and together they published many scientific papers.

Regularly his work was recognised in the country and abroad, one of the last by the President of Republic with the Grã-Cruz da Ordem de Instrução Pública.

Abílio Fernandes was a gentleman, good looking, hard-working, very dedicated to botany in all its facets, research, teaching and management. He secured and expanded the work of his predecessors.