Barbara Brown, Field Museum staffer, donor who had 4 species named for her, dies

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In life, Barbara Brown had four animal species named for her. There was a Peruvian rodent (Isothrix barbarabrownae). There also were a Brazilian monkey (Callicebus barbarabrownae), a mouse in the Philippines (Apomys brownorum) and a prehistoric bird (Vadaravis brownae).

In death, though, she hoped to be reincarnated as a hawk.

A birder, nature lover and one of the longest-serving employees at The Field Museum, Mrs. Brown also was a generous benefactor. She and her stockbroker-husband Roger Brown gave millions of dollars to the Field, the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Chicago Botanic Garden, where the 12-acre Barbara Brown Nature Reserve is named in her honor.

Mrs. Brown, 89, died Monday of multiple organ failure at Highland Park Hospital, according to her family.

Barbara and her brother Maynard grew up on the West Side in Austin, the children of Jewish immigrants. Their mother was from Bucharest, Romania, their father from Odessa in Ukraine. As a child, she attended Emmet grade school and loved riding her bike to the library and going to see Shirley Temple movies.

When she was about 10, her house-painter father died as a result of lung damage from being gassed in World War I.

Her milliner-mother Min Cohen then opened up hat shops in an era when well-dressed women had one for almost every outfit. “She put two kids through college,” Roger Brown said.

After Austin High School, she wanted to study biology but worried that might not get her a job. So she majored in economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, according to her son.

She met her future husband through her mother, who sought investment advice from Roger Brown. “She thought, ‘Hey, this is somebody for my daughter,’ ” her husband said.

Barbara E. Brown and Roger Brown at the opera.

Barbara E. Brown and Roger Brown at the opera. | Provided photo

After getting married in 1953, the Browns moved to Highland Park. They bought a house and 10 undeveloped acres near Clavey Road and Green Bay Road where they presided over six children and a menagerie of dogs, cats, birds and turtles. “We had a petting zoo,” said their son Owen Brown.

To beat the traffic, she’d get up early and be on the road to the museum by 6 a.m., said her husband, a partner at the brokerage A.G. Becker & Company. She worked at the Field for 47 years, retiring as a scientific associate.

Mrs. Brown started in the mammalogy department, where she worked for Philip Hershkovitz. She skinned, dissected and recorded specimens and made several research expeditions to Brazil.

“My mother had tremendous observational powers, very good measurement techniques, a high level of accuracy, a very good memory, a lot of curiosity,” her son said.

In appreciation, Hershkovitz named a monkey species for her. “It has long blond hair. It’s cute,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times in 2007.

In 2006, Bruce D. Patterson, the Field’s MacArthur curator of mammals, bestowed her name on the Peruvian rodent. Part of the tree rat family, it resembles a guinea pig.

“She’s a mentor to a lot of us,” he said at the time. “She’s like a den mother.”

Barbara E. Brown with Bruce D. Patterson, who named a Peruvian forest rodent (pictured) in her honor.

Barbara E. Brown with Bruce D. Patterson, who named a Peruvian forest rodent (pictured) in her honor. | Provided photo

Mrs. Brown said she was “tickled.”

“Barbara obviously comes from an economic status above most in the museum,” Patterson said, “and she’d put on an old, moth-eaten lab coat. I think she was focused on things that were more important than superficialities.”

She worked into her 80s, two days a week. “If you keep active,” she used to say, “your brain stays active.”

During bird migrations, driving with her could be hazardous, her son said. She would slow down in the middle of a highway to peer at a hawk.

“She wanted to be — perhaps she has been — reborn as a hawk,” he said. “Birds filled her with delight.”

“Barbara so loved the woods and the birds, helping all of us really see and appreciate them,” said Jean Franczyk, president and chief executive officer of the botanic garden.

She was a president of the Evanston North Shore Bird Club and also liked to play tennis and follow Roger Federer’s matches. She and her husband attended four Grand Slam tennis tournaments.

Barbara E. Brown with her husband Roger on the slopes. | Provided photo

She enjoyed listening to the pianists Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Igor Levitt, violinists Yehudi Menuhin and David Oistrakh, Beethoven’s Razamovsky quartets and anything by Franz Schubert. When she died, her family was playing a recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”

In addition to her husband and son Owen, Mrs. Brown is survived by her daughter Vanessa, sons Jeffrey, Andrew and Henry, 18 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. A service is planned for 11 a.m. Friday at Congregation Solel, in Highland Park.

Barbara E. Brown, a scientific associate at The Field Museum, worked there for 47 years.

Barbara E. Brown, a scientific associate at The Field Museum, worked there for 47 years. | Provided photo