Michael J. Wingfield was born in 1954 in Natal, South Africa. He received a B.Sc. degree in botany and plant pathology from the University of Natal in 1976 and, the following year, received a B.Sc. Honors degree in plant pathology from the same university. In 1979, he received an M.Sc. degree in plant pathology from the University of Stellenbosch and married Brenda D. Fairbairn, his life partner and colleague (professor, Department of Genetics, University of Pretoria). Wingfield established the first formal forest pathology research program in South Africa in 1978 at the Plant Protection Research Institute in Stellenbosch and, after completing his Ph.D. degree in 1983 (University of Minnesota: major, plant pathology; minor, entomology), returned to resume development of that program. He moved to the University of the Free State in 1988 and became a full professor in the Department of Microbiology and Biochemistry in 1990. In 1994, he was appointed to the Mondi Paper Co. Ltd. endowed chair in forest pathology, a position he still holds. Wingfield is the founding and current director of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI) at the University of Pretoria, where he also is a professor and member of senate. Concurrent with his other appointments, he is director of the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation, Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology, one of the first six established as part of the government-supported science system.
Wingfield is an internationally respected plant pathologist and one of the most influential forest scientists in the world. His research has had a major impact on forest pathology, mycology, and forest health management, with major contributions in research, teaching, and administration. He is a prolific, original investigator who has authored or coauthored more than 500 refereed publications, five books, and numerous chapters in books and proceedings. Wingfield has ongoing projects and collaborations in many parts of the world, and his research has enhanced understanding of some of the most complex and damaging diseases of pines, eucalypts, and other important trees. Pathogens of special interest, and to which he and his students have contributed new knowledge, include species of Ceratocystis, Ophiostoma, Mycosphaerella, Fusarium, Cryphonectria, and Armillaria. His research on insects that interact with and/or vector some causal agents of tree diseases is seminal. His team has coupled molecular and classical techniques to identify, characterize, and differentiate pathogens; delineate new, often cryptic species; and discern phylogenetic relationships. Findings from this basic research have had real-world applications in diverse areas, including the development of host resistance, international quarantines, and disease management.
Wingfield is deeply committed to education and is an enthusiastic and creative mentor. He has taught numerous courses at the university level and still teaches undergraduate classes and delivers guest lectures in plant pathology, genetics, and botany at the University of Pretoria. He has advised or served on the committees of more than 80 M.Sc. and Ph.D. students, many of whom now lead their own programs on five continents. Wingfield is a frequent global consultant on forest diseases and insects and is in demand as a speaker at scientific meetings. He has given more than 100 invited plenary or keynote addresses worldwide.
Wingfield’s outstanding administrative contribution has been the founding and development of the FABI on the campus of the University of Pretoria (www.fabinet.up.ac.za). In 1997, Wingfield’s vision for the new institute was translated into reality with the relocation of 55 scientists in South Africa, construction of a major new building, and implementation of a broad research initiative. In only a decade, FABI has become one of the world’s most recognized and most productive forest protection and agricultural biotechnology research centers with more than 110 academic staff, postdoctorates, and Ph.D. and M.Sc. students. FABI engages the single largest number of plant pathologists in South Africa; is a major center for the investigation of forest and agricultural problems, especially in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia; and is a training center for young forest protection specialists worldwide.
Wingfield has served the discipline of plant pathology in diverse capacities, including president of the Southern African Society of Plant Pathology; vice president of the International Society for Plant Pathology; coordinator of the Forest Health Division, International Union of Forestry Research Organizations; and Editorial Board member for Mycological Research, Plant Pathology, Australasian Plant Pathology, and the Encyclopedia of Forest Sciences. Wingfield’s productivity, contributions, and tireless efforts on behalf of forestry and agriculture have been recognized with numerous awards. Among the most prestigious are the Scientific Achievement Award of the International Union of Forestry Research Organizations; Havenga Prize of the South African Academy for Art and Science; gold medal of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science; the highest award of the South African National Science and Technology Forum; and Distinguished Plant Pathology Alumnus of the University of Minnesota. He is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, honorary member of the Mycological Society of America, and fellow of the South African Society for Plant Pathology (SASPP). In 1998, he became the third recipient of the highest award from SASPP, the Hendrik Christian Persoon Medal (after J. E. van der Plank and W. F. O. Marasas). Wingfield has had three fungi named in his honor: Leptographium wingfieldii Morelet, Sterigmatomyces wingfieldii van der Walt, and Asterina wingfieldi.