Francis Marion Ownbey was born 29 September 1910 in Kirksville, Missouri. During his boyhood, the Ownbey family moved to the town of Hulett, near Devil's Tower in northeastern Wyoming. Marion Ownbey travelled south to attend college at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. He received both a B.S. (1935) and M.S. (1936) from the University of Wyoming, studying principally with Aven Nelson, a renowned botanist of the Rocky Mountain frontier.
Ownbey returned to Missouri to study for his Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis. He studied with J. M. Greenman. This was an era in which two major movements in plant systematics were becoming established. The first of these was an emphasis on revisionary monographs--botanists were beginning to sort through the vast specimens collected throughout North America, especially those from the once largely inaccessible West. Monographic revisions focused on exploring the diversity of collected specimens to circumscribe reasonably species and genera. The second major movement of this era was the exploration of cytogenetics, especially to understand how chromosomal changes impacted speciation. The impressive cytogenetic work of Edgar Anderson at the Missouri Botanical Garden had a great influence on Marion Ownbey while he was in St. Louis. In 1939, Ownbey completed his Ph.D. dissertation, a monographic revision (published in 1940) of Calochortus that incorporated cytogenetic studies. It remains one of the best examples of the monographic approach in plant systematics.
Marion Ownbey moved in 1939 to Washington State University, beginning his career on the faculty and serving as director of the herbarium. On the Palouse, he continued to conduct research on Calochortus and also began studies of Allium. He published numerous papers on Allium, many of which were co- authored with Hannah Aase, a colleague in the Department of Botany. During World War II, Ownbey left Pullman for a year to seek pharmaceutical plants in Ecuador for the U.S. Foreign Economic Administration.
In 1946, Marion Ownbey sent a letter to Charles Hiser, describing hybrids that he had been observing among the three introduced species of Tragopogon found on the Palouse. Ownbey's research on Tragopogon was to become well known as one of the first and best examples of allopolyploid speciation. Marion Ownbey continued to explore experimental approaches to the taxonomy and evolution of Tragopogon on the Palouse during much of the rest of his career. This included travel through Europe in 1954 on a Guggenheim Fellowship to study and collect Tragopogon species in their native habitats. His goal of a monographic study of the systematics and evolution of the genus was thwarted by his inability to obtain specimens from remote areas of central Asia.
Floristic studies began to occupy Marion Ownbey's time in the 1950s. He prepared treatments of Allium for floras of Arizona and Texas and of both Allium and Castilleja for Davis's Flora of Idaho. He was primarily involved with the Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest (the five volumes of which were published from 1955-1969), which he edited with C. Leo Hitchcock and others. One of Ownbey's most significant contributions to the Vascular Plants of the Pacific Northwest was his treatment of Castilleja, a genus that had long been of interest to him because of the significance of hybridization in its evolution.
When Marion Ownbey became director of the herbarium in 1939, it held about 90,000 plant specimens. That total increased to over 273,000 in his 35 years as the director of the herbarium. To honor his work in the herbarium and stature as a systematist, the Board of Regents for Washington State University on 22 November 1974 named the facility the Marion Ownbey Herbarium. Marion Ownbey was ill at this time and died soon after on 7 December.
Marion Ownbey's influence continues to be felt in plant systematics. He had 24 graduate students complete degrees under his supervision. Many of these students have had distinguished academic careers. Ownbey's work on Tragopogon has been followed-up by subsequent investigators at Washington State University. His work on Calochortus serves as a superb framework upon which much subsequent research on the genus has been conducted.