Professor David Firmage, Force Behind Environmental Studies Program, Dies at 77

September 2, 2020

Colby mourns the loss of David H. Firmage, the Clara C. Piper Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, who passed away Aug. 28, 2020, at his home in Fairfield, Maine. A beloved professor for 35 years and an esteemed scholar, he was one of three founders of Colby’s current Environmental Studies Program, nationally recognized as one of the best undergraduate environmental programs.

A plant biologist, Firmage arrived at Colby in 1975. With F. Russell Cole, Oak Professor of Biological Sciences, Emeritus, and Thomas Tietenberg, Mitchell Family Professor of Economics, Emeritus, he helped guide the fledgling Environmental Studies Program from a concentration within biology to the full interdisciplinary program it is today with distinct majors in policy and science and 156 majors and nearly 80 minors.

Professor David Firmage, seen here in an undated photograph, taught courses in biology and environmental studies at Colby from 1975 until he retired in 2010.

“He has always been a powerful force supporting the growth of the program and a devoted and passionate protector of its students and resources,” said Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus.

After earning an M.S. in botany from Brigham Young University, Firmage earned a Ph.D. in botany: ecology and systematics from the University of Montana. His research focused on pollination ecology, and at Colby he taught courses in ecology, plant biology, and environmental studies. He also taught innovative Jan Plan field study courses in Costa Rica, Belize, and California’s Mojave Desert.

Jan Plans, Firmage felt, were “the most important things we do” for both science and non-science majors. “We’ve had cases in which Jan Plans have determined students’ career plans,” he said in a 1995 Colby Magazine article.

“He guided so many of us in exploring the world around us, in understanding the natural world and its complex systems,” recalled Colleen Balch ’87, a naturalist and interpretative educator in Yosemite National Park. “So many of the profound gifts that Colby provided me to build my life came from the privilege of being his advisee, his student, his research assistant, his mentee, and his friend. He was always a model for me as both a scientist and an educator.”

David Firmage and his family took an active part in student life at Colby when they lived in the faculty apartment in Colby’s Mary Low Hall in the 1980s.

Firmage also helped develop Colby research programs on Maine’s Belgrade Lakes. Along with Cole, he designed and co-taught Problems in Environmental Science, a capstone, service-learning course in which students conduct water-quality research on area lakes. Firmage and Cole wrote a monograph about the program included in the book Acting Locally: Concepts and Models for Service-learning in Environmental Studies.

Other significant contributions include serving as chair of the Biology Department, the Environmental Studies Program, and the Interdisciplinary Studies Division. He contributed to the 1998 Award for the Integration of Research and Education from the National Science Foundation, a grant that supported the first Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium, co-organized by Firmage. He also played a key role in bringing millions of dollars in science funding to Colby, including from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Olin Foundation, which resulted in the Olin Science Center and significant expansion in environmental studies at Colby.

The author of more than 25 publications, he was also a project manager for evaluations of proposed natural landmarks for the National Park Service. In 1982 he conducted water-quality analysis and environmental impact studies for EPA projects while working as a research scientist through a fellowship from the George I. Alden Trust.

Throughout, Firmage was known for his wisdom and grace. “David was not only a superlative educator, but he was also a kind, generous, and unselfish mentor and colleague,” Nyhus said. “His church and his family meant everything to him, but he treated everyone like family.”

David Firmage served as a bishop for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as well as a temple worker and missionary internationally. He enjoyed gardening, photography, reading, and traveling.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Alexandra, four children, 18 grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and two siblings.