Biology professor still spreading knowledge after more than 50 years

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If you were born almost a century ago, by now you would likely have some impressive stories.

Andrew Barnum, adjunct biology professor and curator of the Dixie State University Museum of Natural History, is nearing 91 years old and certainly has his fair share of tales to tell.

Born in 1924 and raised in Mesquite, Nevada, Barnum moved to southern Utah during the Great Depression. His family spent time on the ranch of a friend of his father’s until Barnum started his first year at what was known as Dixie Junior College in 1940.

He began his studies majoring in business, switched to art and eventually was “converted,” as he put it, to majoring in biology. After graduating as valedictorian of his class with an associate degree, he decided to stay one more year to teach biology.

He went on to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Brigham Young University in Provo. During his time at BYU, he also taught an entomology class and got married.

After turning down an offer to continue his education at Cornell, he attended Iowa State University where he earned a Ph.D. in Systematic Entomology in only 3 years. He then took his job teaching at Dixie State College in 1959.

Barnum’s academic career alone is a feat many could never match, but along with those years of schooling, he also spent time working in Berlin, Germany, during World War II where he would rub shoulders with people like General Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

To help pay for school after his master’s degree, he took a job as purchasing agent for the Atomic Energy Commission. He had to get special security clearance from the government. His boss prepared him for one of his assignments by explaining the level of secrecy he was expected to keep. 

“He said … ‘You will have some information that no other person on the earth will know except the president of the United States,’” Barnum said. “‘The information is how much pure uranium we have in North America. You are not allowed to give this report to anyone.’ And I never have – not even now. 70 years later, I still haven’t done it.”

He taught in St. George from 1959 until 2010. He officially retired in 1995 but continued to teach and curate the museum in the science building.

He has turned down prestigious positions all over the country, including the University of Michigan, BYU, Philadelphia Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian National Biological Society, so he could continue teaching at Dixie.

He made his choice to stay in St. George based on the science of the area of Washington County.

“We have three physiographic regions here that you’ll find nowhere else, probably in the entire world,” Barnum said. “We have plants and animals found in Washington County that you’ll find nowhere else. When I was a student here, I did a lot of collecting. One reason I wanted to come back here was to continue in that process, because that’s my research, and so I did.”

He also cited the students he’s taught as his motivation to stay. Many of his students have gone on to be renowned scientists with published academic research. 

As he got older, he was counseled by doctors to change how many hours he put into his work.

“I hated to give up teaching,” he said. “I was 83. I had to give it up because it was taking too much of my time and I wanted to run the museum. I started this museum in 1959. We have national recognition right now.”

Despite slowing his pace, he still comes to school five days a week, still works in the museum and still is doing biological research. The story of the science program at Dixie State University is inseparable from Barnum’s story, his contributions to the school and his museum.

“I’m still going through the work of the museum,” Barnum said. “I’m hoping to do it forever and ever.”