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Remembering ASU microbiologist Betty Davidson

Betty Davidson holding a studded-animal frog with her children's book in its mouth, with an outdoor setting behind her.

With a big green puppet in hand, Elizabeth Davidson, a microbiologist at ASU, has young children imagining the life cycles and life challenges of a threatened frog species in Arizona — and cheering for the underfrog. Photo courtesy School of Life Sciences/ASU

March 14, 2023

It is with great sadness that the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University announces the passing of Professor Elizabeth (Betty) Davidson, a beloved member of the institution. 

Davidson was a microbiologist and internationally recognized insect pathologist. Throughout her lengthy and distinguished career, she was recognized for her excellence in teaching, her brilliance in research, and her dedication to outreach and mentorship. 

She and her husband, Joe Davidson, both came to ASU in 1970. Joe was recruited by the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy, where he spent his whole career. 

Betty studied the pathogens of insects and amphibians, and she sustained a research lab and appointment over many decades. She also taught for the zoology and biology departments, and then later at the School of Life Sciences after it was founded in 2002. 

“Betty Davidson was a lovely, warm, encouraging scientist who truly cared about students and about developing knowledge to improve the world. She was a fine person who enriched our lives,” said Jane Maienschein, University Professor of History of Science; Regents, President's and Parents Association Professor; and director of the Center for Biology and Society.

Davidson’s study of insects focused on their impact on plants and agriculture, and in turn how that affected human life. Her work explored intricate relationships inherent in a world most of us never stop to consider. Insect-microbial interactions are crucial to public health — it’s astonishing how frequently human health throughout history has come down to a contest of bug against bug. 

While it may seem easy to label insects, and indeed many view them this way, they are also important species within their own ecosystems, with their own ways of fighting infection. Careful study of insect pathology in relation to their environment has more than once shaped the course of human history. 

Davidson’s work raised important questions about how best to combat these “pests” and their effect on a much larger picture. Addressing these considerations led her to start an ethics course for biology majors with Maienschein and Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment and then-department chair Jim Collins.   

“The first time we taught the course, we had to scramble to read a lot and learn a lot, and Betty really jumped into the challenges,” said Maienschein. “She made the course her own, and welcomed Karin Ellison when Dr. Ellison arrived from Wisconsin to help develop our bioethics courses.”

These courses grew into a Life Science Ethics program within the School of Life Sciences that still exists today, currently led by Ellison

In 2006, Davidson published “Big Fleas Have Little Fleas: How Discoveries of Invertebrate Diseases Are Advancing Mored Science," which shares amazing stories throughout history about diseases of insects and the scientists who learn to use those diseases to benefit our world. 

In addition to her specialty in insects, she also collaborated with Collins on the pathogens of amphibians. 

In 2011, as an infectious disease was threatening frog populations in Arizona and across the world, Davidson published “Cheery: The True Adventures of a Chiricahua Leopard Frog,” an illustrated children’s book that takes the reader through the life cycles and life challenges of the threatened species. 

Published by Five Star Publications Inc., the book was developed with support from the Heritage Fund, funded by Arizona Game and Fish Department, and was officially designated an Arizona Centennial Legacy Project by the Arizona Historical Commission. 

“Children need a way to relate to things that are important in the environment, because they are important in ways that no one could even guess,” said Davidson in an article about the book’s release. “This book helps them learn a bit about biology, about predator-prey relationships, about lifecycles, about ecology and about overcoming obstacles.”

Davidson’s passion and dedication to her work, as well her talent for public outreach, made her a recognizable face around campus. 

“She was well known around campus, and well liked,” said Collins. 

“She was always friendly and warm,” agreed Wim Vermaas, a Foundation Professor who said Davidson was a frequent sight on his way to and from work, even after she had officially retired. 

Davidson's contributions to the field of insect pathology in the School of Life Sciences will be deeply missed. Her legacy will live on through the countless students whose lives she touched, the groundbreaking research she conducted and her publications that have opened so many ideas to the rarely seen world of insect disease. 

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