Renowned monarch butterfly expert Lincoln Brower dies, but his legacy lives on

Posted on July 20, 2018 by Janika Carey

Lincoln Brower Lincoln Brower in Michoacan, Mexico. Photo by Medford Taylor

The Sweet Briar community was saddened to learn of the death of Lincoln Brower, a world-renowned entomologist and research professor at the College. Brower died peacefully at his home in Nelson County on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, after an extended illness.

Brower came to Sweet Briar in 1997 after retiring from the University of Florida as Distinguished Service Professor of Zoology, Emeritus, joining his wife and research collaborator, Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink. Born in New Jersey on Sept. 10, 1931, he was well-known internationally for his research on the chemical and physiological ecology of monarch butterflies, and was an ardent conservationist on their behalf. He worked tirelessly to protect the monarch’s overwintering habitat in Mexico, raising awareness through his research reports and dozens of interviews with national and international media organizations.

“I feel keeping it on the front page is really important,” he said in a 2013 interview for the Sweet Briar Magazine. “To me, the monarch is a treasure like a great piece of art. We need to develop a cultural appreciation of wildlife that’s equivalent to art and music and so forth.”

Lincoln Brower and Linda Fink Brower and his wife, Linda Fink, in Canterbury, England, in 2007

During his two decades at Sweet Briar, his work also provided unique opportunities for students, exposing them not only to the rigors of field and laboratory research but to the scientist’s role as a communicator. But to students and colleagues alike, Brower was more than “just” a scientist.

“His prodigious and pivotal contributions to biology were exceeded only by his humility,” says John Morrissey, a longtime professor of biology at Sweet Briar. “In fact, I knew him for two to three years before I realized that he was the Lincoln Brower who had authored all those amazing papers that I read as a student! He was simply too warm, too generous, too gregarious and too thoughtful to be that famous! Simply stated, he is one of the finest humans that I have ever met.”

Morrissey says he’ll especially remember Brower’s “infectious,” “unfettered enthusiasm” for the natural world. He recalls the first time he had dinner at Brower’s home, eagerly awaiting an evening of interesting conversation about insect biology. “Instead, he chose to show me a small sampling of his collection of geodes, complete with his poetic, awe-struck, nearly tearful description of their beauty,” Morrissey remembers. “To me, the only thing more beautiful than the accumulation of crystals lining the cavities of those rocks was the joy that Lincoln exuded while sharing them with me. I am a better person for being inspired by him.”

Lincoln Brower and student Brower admires work from a collaboration between arts and science students at Sweet Briar in 2014.

Brower’s impressive career began in 1953, when he received a B.S. in biology from Princeton University. At Yale University, he worked with Charles Remington, earning his Ph.D. in zoology in 1957. A Fulbright Fellowship allowed him to spend a year in E.B. Ford’s ecological genetics lab at Oxford University before joining the biology department at Amherst College, where he rose from instructor to the Stone Professor of Biology. In 1980, he moved to the zoology department at the University of Florida.

Brower authored or coauthored more than 200 scientific papers and produced eight films. His early research on insect adaptive coloration led to collaborations with chemists and ecologists in exploring the chemical ecology of milkweeds, monarch butterflies and bird predators.

When the winter location of eastern monarch butterflies was announced by National Geographic in 1976, Brower’s focus turned to studying the extraordinary winter colonies and to the microclimatic protection provided by the forests. On his first visit to Mexico in 1977, he recognized that the colonies could be lost to deforestation, and his work expanded to include conservation of this endangered phenomenon.

It was during one such visit in 2005 that he met Medford Taylor, a renowned photojournalist who now teaches at Sweet Briar College. Taylor had decided to photograph the monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacán. Brower connected him with the right people, Taylor says, in addition to briefing him on his work.

Brower portrait by Medford Taylor Medford Taylor’s favorite portrait of Brower, taken by Taylor in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacan, Mexico, 2006

“I was fortunate to climb and ride horses up the mountains to those colonies with Lincoln [after that],” Taylor recalls. “Standing in those fir tree forests bursting with millions of butterflies with this world-renowned scientist was a spiritual experience for me. Lincoln never talked about Lincoln; it was always about his work, photography, politics, the environment — and he listened. He was a gentle soul, a man of high intellect and a gentleman of the highest order. I feel honored and very humbled to have called him friend. His work and his spirit will live on.”

Brower conducted field and laboratory research to understand the monarch’s habitat requirements, worked with conservation organizations and government agencies to design the monarch butterfly reserves, and encouraged the public to care about monarchs through innumerable public lectures and consulting for dozens of articles, books and documentaries. In 2013, President Jimmy Carter joined him on a visit to Mexico to learn more about the monarchs — one of the highlights of his life, Brower said. In 2015, Brower was a signatory on the petition to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to designate the monarch butterfly as a threatened species.

Brower receives E.O. Wilson Award Brower receives the E.O. Wilson Award at Sweet Briar in 2016.

Brower’s awards include the E.O. Wilson Award of the Center for Biological Diversity, Reconocimiento a la Conservacion de la Naturaleza from the Mexican federal government, the Marsh Award of the Royal Entomological Society, the Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal from Yale, the Henry Bates Award of the Association for Tropical Lepidoptera, the Distinguished Animal Behaviorist Award of the Animal Behavior Society and the Linnaean Medal for Zoology. He was a fellow of the Royal Entomological Society and Explorers Club, the Entomological Society of America, an honorary life member of the Lepidopterists’ Society, and a research associate of the Smithsonian Institution and the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera at the University of Florida.

Brower is survived by his wife, two children, two grandchildren, his brother, three German shepherds and two cats. His professional family includes research collaborators, former graduate and undergraduate honors students and conservation professionals around the world. A celebration of his life will be held at Sweet Briar’s butterfly research garden in early fall.

Lincoln Brower Brower at home in 2012. Photo by Medford Taylor

In honor of Brower’s extraordinary dedication and commitment to monarch conservation, the Monarch Butterfly Fund, of which he was a founding board member, has established the Lincoln P. Brower Award, an annual grant of $3,000 to support undergraduate or graduate students in research on the conservation of monarch butterflies and their habitats.

To donate funds to support the Lincoln P. Brower Award, visit and follow the directions to donate. To ensure that your donation is credited to the Brower Award, please send an email to Karen Oberhauser ( with information on your donation. To donate by check, please send the donation, with an indication that it is for the Brower Award to:

Monarch Butterfly Fund
c/o Karen Oberhauser
4013 Yuma Drive
Madison, WI 53711