AASP ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
University College London - 16th December 2002
INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR WILLIAM G. (BILL) CHALONER
Interviewer - J. B. Riding
(Note that questions from JBR are in italics and the replies from WGC are in Roman font).
JBR: Would you just like to chat about how you got into palaeobotany in the first place?
WGC: Sure. I suppose in a way it started when, two years into the second world war, in 1941, I went to Kingston Grammar School and did my GCSE exams ("school certificate" as it was then) there, while the V1 flying bombs were coming over London. I went on to do the Higher School Certificate, what's now called A level, when the V2 rockets were landing. It was quite a dramatic, interesting period. I could only do Pure and Applied Maths, Physics and Chemistry at that school, so I did just those four sciences. But I was already very keen to get into biology and so, on leaving school with those A levels, I went to Chelsea Polytechnic, in London, and I studied Geology and Botany, both for the first time, and I started on degree Chemistry. While there, I took the scholarship to Reading University. You should understand that at that time, to get to university if you weren't ex- service, (that is, a veteran - and I was only 17) it was quite difficult. They were taking ten ex-servicemen to every one person who had not yet done their service. You really needed to have some lever, like a scholarship to the university, to get in. I was lucky - I got what was called the Wantage Scholarship that took me into one of the student residences, Wantage Hall. It paid my residence fees outright and my parents ended up paying just the tuition fees, which were about £30 a year at that time.
So I went to Reading University to read Botany, Chemistry and Geology; I was already interested in fossil plants, having done geology at Chelsea Polytechnic and was intrigued with the idea that geology gives you a time dimension to plant evolution. Professor Tom Harris, a renowned palaeobotanist, was Head of the Botany Department, but that was not why I had chosen Reading. I would like to pretend it was! I had taken the scholarship exam there because I had had a vague interest in perhaps doing agriculture, when I first applied to go there. After two years' Geology/Botany/Chemistry, and obtaining a "first" in that general degree, I was really enthusiastic about getting into fossil plants, so I did "Honours Botany" in my year at Reading, but did no palaeobotany in that third year at all. Tom Harris said that if you were going to do research in palaeobotany (as I already hoped to do), you should keep out of it as an undergraduate! So I did lots of other entertaining things - lake ecology, counting the algae round the year, and water analysis, plant physiology, plant ecology and growing fungi and a whole slew of different, interesting topics. At the end of that year, 1950, I got my "First Class Honours BSc" in Botany.
Tom Harris bid for a DSIR grant for me to do research under his supervision. It was his suggestion that I should work on Carboniferous plants, in particular to get spores out of cones of lycopods, to try to relate spore species to their parent plants, and that was the problem he offered me. I thought it would be more interesting to work on the Reading Beds Tertiary flora (that Peter Crane later did his PhD on). I'd collected leaf and seed fossils in the Reading Beds, and found it exciting, and I had given a short paper on fossil Cercidiphyllum leaves and fruit in the Reading Beds to a student group at Reading. But Tom Harris said "I don't want you to work on Tertiary angiosperm fossils, I don't know enough about angiosperm systematics" (which was rubbish), and he urged me to have a go at the Carboniferous spore project - which I did.
JBR: Where was the material you collected from?
WGC: For my PhD? Oh, all around Britain. But in fact most of my research material came from museum collections. That first vacation after I had graduated I was working at a canning factory in Wisbech, in East Anglia - Smedley's canning factory - they paid us £5 a week with "all found" - they fed us, and we got a roof over our heads in huge dormitories in a great warehouse, and I worked, canning peas. I learnt among other things that they put so much copper salts into the canning fluid (to maintain a pleasing green colour in the peas) that at the end of a day's work on the canning machine, you had to scrape off a layer of flakes of precipitated copper, deposited on the steel surface. When that vacation job was finished, I think I phoned Tom Harris, or maybe he wrote me, and said "you've got the DSRI grant, you can start", so I bowled up to Reading, and he suggested that I had better start some collecting. So I went out to Radstock - that was the nearest accessible coalfield. There was no money for my fieldwork so I hitchhiked there, and camped. Tom's only contribution to my fieldwork was to say "I'll send packing cases to Radstock Station and when you've got a full rucksack you can just go to the station, load a box with your fossils and forward it back to Reading. That is how I collected in Yorkshire. When you have filled up one of the packing-cases, you turn the lid over, it has the label for Reading on the back, and screw it down again; then you can just hand it over at the station and they ship it back". So that was what I did. I camped at Mells in Somerset, and walked around the Radstock coalfield. Leslie R. Moore had published a helpful paper - not recently, but post-war anyway - on the fossil plants of the Radstock coalfield, naming all the productive mines and using the fossil plants to establish the biostratigraphy. That was a great help, and I was able to find most of his localities. I collected a great collection of fossil plants there from the old tip heaps,
but I got very littl fertil lycopod material, though I did get one Lepidostrobus, I remember. I was very excited with that. It never yielded any spores, but that was the only productive thing from that coalfield. Later I collected in a number of other areas. The Forest of Dean coalfield was very productive for me. It was rather sad that they published the memoir of the coalfield the year that they closed the last big mine. In that respect, it was a microcosm of the whole British coal mining geology story! But the collecting there was useful to me - I got some good cones and spores there, connected to leafy shoots. Most of my material, though, came from museums, most notably from Cambridge, from the Natural History Museum and Manchester Museum.
Manchester Museum was perhaps typical of my museum activities, and this involves a short side-story. I became President of the Students' Union of Reading University in the second year of my PhD. I don't think Tom Harris thought that was too clever an idea, but I had got into student politics then, and I used to go to a lot of NUS (National Union of Students) meetings and one of them, the NUS Congress, which was held every year, was in Manchester. So between meetings of Congress, voting and speaking, and fooling around, I scampered over to the Museum and there was one super specimen, on which I later published, of a huge branch of
Lepidodendron, mounted on the wall, about two metres high, with cones on leafy shoots all connected. I was able to get spores out of the cones by pressing cellotape (Scotch tape) onto the cones, and ripping away the coalified material, the whole process watched with great apprehension by Dr Eagar, the very conscientious but extremely helpful curator there.
Anyway, those were the sources of my material - museums and fieldwork. But probably three-quarters of the stuff I published on was from museums and BGS material, the Kidston collection, and BGS non-Kidston Collection plants.
JBR: I was intrigued to hear you were active in student politics. What inspired you to move into student politics?
WGC: Oh gosh. Because I think I was just interested in what was happening in the world. I think many young people were very much more politically minded than they are now, and I had been since I was at school. I was very left wing in my politics in the traditional way of the young, and I might well have joined the Communist party when I was in the sixth form at Grammar School. I'm very glad I didn't, subsequently, because it would have greatly impeded my going to the States later. When I was at Reading, I went to all the Students Union meetings and got interested in student matters.
Our students Union was affiliated to the National Union of Students, and they had a lot of contacts with the other side of the Iron Curtain. We used to have Russian "student" delegations coming over - usually middle-aged, and with their political keepers, who would explain how idyllic student life was in the USSR. It was all pretty unreal. What was happening in Europe and the Cold War was high on our agenda, but the real lives of students, on- and off-campus often got neglected. I was elected on a ticket of the Union concentrating on what concerned "students as such" (a catch phrase of those days) rather than trying to change the outside world. The Union had a budget of about £5000, collected by the University, largely from the grants that most of us received in those days, and simply handed over to the Union to disperse as we saw fit. All our student sports clubs and societies were affiliated to the Students Union and all got money from that pot.
Jack Wolfenden, (who wrote the Wolfenden Report on Prostitution, and another one on homosexuality), was Vice Chancellor of the University at the time, and he was super; he was very helpful to me, certainly, and I liaised with him a lot on student affairs. He seemed a remarkable man, in that I could rush into his Secretary and say "I must see the Vice Chancellor" over some imagined huge crisis of student affairs, (which must actually have been totally trivial to him), and she would say "I'll just see" - and then he would come out and say: "Come in, Bill". His desk would be completely clear, and he would pass me his big box of cigarettes, (which would be taboo now, but in those days it was the norm, as a sort of catalyst to informal chat) and we'd talk, seemingly with all the time in the world. But in reality he was an extremely busy man, involved in a whole lot of outside responsibilities, and I was very impressed that he made time in that way for student matters. I think being President of the Students Union was helpful to me later in a number of ways, but particularly in getting a Post-doctoral Fellowship to go to the United States. I got my PhD, and had already bid for a Fellowship to go to America, a Commonwealth Fellowship as it was called then - the title was changed later to a "Harkness Fellowship". I was awarded that Fellowship, which took me to Ann Arbor, but I think the fact that I was the President of the Union, as well as plodding away academically, helped me to get it because the Harkness Foundation were interested in people who reached beyond just their chosen field of research.
JBR: Did your Union duties fall concurrently with your PhD work?
WGC: Yes, there was some conflict there, all the time through that second year of my PhD. Tom Harris was pretty tolerant of it. I managed to combine Union affairs with carrying on with my research. In fact I think it was a very useful experience for me - I mean learning to do two jobs at once. I published, I suppose, four papers during those three years of my PhD. Tom was very helpful in encouraging me to publish as I went along. He always said he thought writing a thesis was a very bad experience for people, it gave them a terrible tendency to be verbose and to think that you can just be as long-winded as you like, without any constraint of a need for brevity. He said that writing a paper is an entirely different game; you've really got to be much more precise and concise, and he certainly hammered home that idea.
JBR: So presumably he was a great influence on you?
WGC: He was, yes, certainly.
JBR: Would you say he was the central influence?
WGC: Absolutely. He was a really remarkable man. I wrote his obituary for the Times within a couple of days of his death, and later, his "Biographical Memoir" for the Royal Society. It was a very interesting experience for me because I had to look into his life in a way that I never had while he was alive. As often happens with that kind of activity, you wish after someone you know has died, that you had asked them a whole set of questions that never occurred to you at the time. I talked to him many times about palaeobotanical matters, but I learnt a lot more in the course of writing that biographical memoir.
JBR: I got the impression that in the 1950's and 1960's particularly, academic supervisors were more, shall we say, closely linked to their students, and maybe you felt, did you feel part of his family?
WGC: Yes, indeed. I had meals with the Harris family many times, as an undergraduate. We had a students' botanical society for all the undergraduates (the "Botsoc") that he controlled in a most benign but thoroughly undemocratic way. It had a notional President and committee but he decided what happened. We used to go out on field trips by bicycle, just local ecological field trips, collecting toadstools and doing rather trivial ecological work, looking at humidity and temperature in woodlands, and that sort of thing. Coming back from those field trips (as it seems in recollection, usually in the rain, and soaked through), we would go back to his house and have tea, during a period when food was still rationed, of course. So, yes, he was very convivial in that way. But he wasn't a terribly socialising person in the conventional sense at all, but certainly while I was working for my PhD, I got to know his wife and daughters quite well. He was also a very attentive supervisor. I was the only research student he had during the three years I was there, and barely a day would pass without him bounding into my room and saying "Bill, what are you doing now, what are you doing at this moment?" and I would explain what I was doing and we would talk, and of course he would go over and criticised anything I wrote, mercilessly. He would often re-write it quite simply in scrawling pencil script, and would return the draft, together with a great sheaf of hand-written notes, usually of greater bulk than the original! I would then re-type it on an old German typewriter that I had bought very cheaply at the end of the war. He would always return any draft promptly - he was very conscientious in that respect.
JBR: Sounds like the ideal supervisor. Would you like to just say a bit about, at that time, palynology/palaeobotany generally, the state of it in this country or in Europe?
WGC: Sure. There were really only two palaeobotanists who were full university professors, active in research in Britain at that time: John Walton in Glasgow, whom I visited several times, a Carboniferous palaeobotanist, (he was external examiner for my PhD) and Tom Harris. Hamshaw Thomas was in Cambridge, but really he had all but ceased palaeobotanical research by that time, but of course he gave a great deal of effort to being Head of the Cambridge "Botany School. So far as I know he published nothing during the years that I was doing my research at Reading, but in 1960 he published a joint paper with Harris on Yorkshire Jurassic cycads, and I believe that that was his last paper.
So the two active palaeobotanical professors in Britain were Tom Harris and John Walton. Others came along later, of course, considerably later. Kenneth Sporne was a very active Cambridge botanist, who while he was never really a palaeobotanist, he had a great interest in palaeobotany. He published several important textbooks that had a lot of palaeobotany in them. They were very useful, very able works. Although I don't think he looked at any fossil plant seriously, he was a very strong friend of palaeobotany. Dianne Edwards worked with him and then, of course, later she went on to get a chair in Cardiff, and an FRS for her palaeobotanical research.
Of course there were several palaeobotanists in other institutions, of whom the two important ones were Crookall, in the Geological Survey, who retired just about as I got my PhD, and W. N. Edwards and his colleague in the Natural History Museum, Bill Croft. W. N. Edwards main interests were Tertiary, but he published very little. He had a very wide knowledge of Palaeobotany - he was a classic case of the broad-based museum palaeobotanist. Bill Croft was a Devonian palaeobotanist, an excellent fellow. He died as a relatively young man in the 1960's. Crookall was absolutely inundated with manuscripts of Kidstons. Inundated isn't the right word - he was buried in them. He was given the task of completing the Kidston manuscripts and I think he was terribly weighed down by deference to Kidston in a ridiculous way and he slowly plugged away at that job, but by the time he retired not one of them had been published post-Kidston of the 1920's, when Kidston died.
Crookall had worked over these manuscripts extensively and if I can side-track on that for a moment, by the time I'd joined the staff of University College, Stubblefield, by then Chief Palaeontologist (of the Geological Survey), later Director, asked me would I be prepared to revise and see the Kidston manuscripts through to publication; you must understand that they had already become "Kidston manuscripts as revised by Crookall", to be revised by Bill Chaloner! I thought it a terrible job. I offered to do the lycopods, but it would have to be my work, I would use the manuscripts, I'd acknowledge that material, but it would have to be my opinion. But that offer wasn't acceptable to Stubblefield. The Geological Survey wanted it to be Kidston, revised by Crookall, edited by Bill Chaloner. Later I agreed to do exactly that, on the understanding that I was simply editing the manuscript, not putting in my opinions, in any way, but just tidying it up. Hester, who was on the Survey staff, was very helpful and he did the donkey work of checking all the references, and all that kind of thing, and I did the more arms-length review of the manuscripts, often changing it but never doing so just on my opinion, but only to get consistency within it. In hindsight it was a rather odd undertaking, but it was a useful experience.
JBR: And did you enjoy that?
WGC: No, but while I think I learnt a lot while doing it, I can't say it was a job I enjoyed. I felt rather uncomfortable with it. Crookall was terribly deferential to to Kidston. If Kidston said something, that must be right, by definition. He never queried Kidston's views, in a way that I found irritating, and often I'd disagree radically with Kidston. His concept of species seemed almost pre-Darwinian; they were defined slavishly and rather simplistically and there was no question of challenging his interpretation in the edited text. It's not quite fair to Kidston or to Crookall perhaps, but I had a sense that they were very rigid in their view of palaeobotanical systematics. Harris was iconoclastic in that way. He said the species, of course, are what we make of them at any one moment, and as we see more specimens, we may change our mind. You look at a hundred specimens, you decide there are two species there on the evidence in front of you, and you describe them as best you can, and that's it for the moment. Then somebody may come along with new material tomorrow, and will completely turn that over, but the definition and limits of fossil species are our concept, developed quite subjectively, and they do not reside immutably in the fossil material!
JBR: So presumably at this time there wasn't a great deal of what we'd now call palaeopalynology going on in this country?
WGC: Very little. Aside from Raistrick's classic work on Coal Measure spores as a means of identifying individual seams, and some papers by Elizabeth Knox and by Robert Crookall on Carboniferous spores, really rather little. (That is of course excluding Quaternary pollen analysis, which was going great guns at Cambridge and elsewhere). But one paper that was of particular interest to me had been published by Leslie R. Moore, the 'father' of Sheffield University palynology. He had published a paper in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society in 1946, in which he described extracting spores from Carboniferous plant compressions by maceration. He obtained only quite small numbers of spores from each, and these showed a surprising range of morphologies. In other words, he obtained several species of miospores from each of his fructifications. However, he regarded this variation as due to developmental stages being preserved in the parent plant fossil, and arranged his drawings of these spores to interpret them as an ontogenetic series. The alternative explanation, favoured (verbally) by John Walton, Mrs Knox and others, was that these several spore types simply represented contamination of the macrofossil material by a miscellany of unrelated spore types. For a while this paper constituted an area of contention between the Sheffield group and some others. For my part, it gave an added incentive to look at in-situ spores, and most particularly megaspores, where large masses of homogeneous spore types made the possibility of such contamination very remote. I was successful in getting megaspores from a number of Carboniferous lycopod cones, and published several papers on them before I completed my PhD. I was also given funding by the DSIR to travel to Holland, where I met Dijkstra who was the leading worker on Carboniferous megaspores at that time, and to Belgium to meet Leclercq and Stockmans.
By the way of an aside, at that time the numbers of journals carrying papers on Palaeobotany or palynology was really very small. The Palaeontological Association was formed soon after I came to University College. A group of young palaeontologists used to meet in a restaurant in Kensington, and from that gathering the Association was formed at the end of the 1960's and took off; but its main raison d'être was to have a journal to carry systematic palaeontology and subsequently I was very grateful to have the chance of publishing in it. But prior to that time the papers I managed to get published were in the Annals of Botany, the Geological Magazine, and the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. W. N. Edwards of the Natural History Museum was the editor of the latter. He was a very good friend to me, and he accepted several papers of mine in that little journal.
JBR: Could I ask you - did you interface much with Leslie Moore?
WGC: No, hardly at all. As I mentioned, I disagreed rather radically with what he had done with his "spores in-situ" study, and indeed some degree of animosity built up between me and the whole Sheffield school, in a quite sad way, but it was overcome later with very good friendships. Moore certainly did a great job as head of the Sheffield geology department in drawing young people into palynology. Many of them, of course, became very well-established and renowned palynologists; above all, stratigraphic palynologists, in the Carboniferous and later of various ages, but mainly Palaeozoic.
By the 1970's, that disagreement about spores in-situ, had become past history and by the time Moore retired, and people like Roger Neves and the whole Sheffield gang were in action, that animosity had evaporated and I examined several Sheffield PhD students. George Hart, a Sheffield graduate, was a particularly good friend. I saw quite a lot of him in later years, and we had common interests in Permian palynology. I was fascinated by his enterprise in going to Russia and later to South Africa.
Others like John Richardson and Geoff Warrington left Sheffield, and came down to London. John came to Kings College. We were good friends through those years, and of course to the present day.
When I finished at Reading I was due to be called up - they were still drafting people for two years service in Britain - and I was much motivated not to be drafted! I'd been in the Army Cadet Corps at school and I had been a sergeant, and in a quiet sort of way quite enjoyed it. But I didn't want to spend two years in the peacetime army, and so I applied for a Commonwealth Fellowship to go to the United States. I got it, went to America for a year, and worked with Chester Arnold in Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, and published several papers on Carboniferous megaspores.
JBR: What year was that, for the record?
WGC: That was l953/54. I got my PhD in 1953, and so I went to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1953. Chester Arnold had published quite an important paper on Carboniferous megaspores, and that's what prompted me to go and work with him. The Commonwealth Fellowships were great because one of their stipulations was that you had to travel. They expected you to buy a second-hand car and to travel as widely as you could. You had to put up a project to them. My objective was to "see American Palaeobotany"! You also had to write a report on some aspect of American life, and I elected to review student government in American universities, so on several fronts I had an interesting year there. I met Jim Schopf, of course, Aureal Cross, Henry Andrews, Bob Baxter, Serge Mamay in Washington, and Ted Delevoryas then doing coal-ball work with Wilson Stewart. The three palynologists who were most helpful to me were Jim Schopf, with whom I stayed for several days in Columbus, Ohio, and Bob Kosanke and Joe Gunnel. Joe was particularly helpful in taking me to a Mississippian locality in Indiana, near Bloomington, where I got a nice megaspore assemblage. Jim Schopf undoubtedly had the greatest influence on me and my thinking about palynology and various other things. I met the two Schopf sons, too; they were schoolboys then, and we all went to watch a basketball game on campus. They teased me mercilessly over my English accent, and imitated it (badly) which they found excruciatingly funny! I suppose they were in their early teens then.
During that year in the US I also met Jane Gray for the first time, in California. I had driven across the continent in a pea green Buick, which I bought for $400 and it was a few years old. I drove to California, and was trying to meet Ralf Chaney in Berkley; but he was off travelling, as he often was, probably in China or somewhere, but Jane Gray was about to work with him, or she thought she was going to work with him, and so we met up in Berkeley and had lunch together and chatted about what she was planning to do. She was already into palynology with Barghorn at Harvard, had done some work there, and had then worked with someone in Denmark - I think Iversen, for a year. She had come back hotfooted with enthusiasm for Quaternary angiosperm palynology, and was keen to get spores out of all the macrofossil localities that Chaney had worked on, to see if the spores told the same story as the macrofossil leaves. That was my first meeting with Jane Gray and we were in contact many times subsequently.
As I was explaining earlier, avoiding call-up had been a major motivation for going to the United States in the first place. The trouble was, that before I left Britain, the "joint recruiting board of the university" (who were responsible for seeing that anyone eligible was drafted into the services the minute they stopped full-time study), learnt that I had got the post-doctoral fellowship, of course. The secretary of the board, who was part of the Reading University administration, said that I must undertake to come back at the end of year and go into the army for two years. I said I was really not prepared to do that, as I really intended to just go to the USA and stay for the full two years that the Commonwealth Fund offered, by which time I would have passed the age at which I would have been called up. So he got on to the Commonwealth Fund and they asked me to undertake to come back, so that they would not be seen as a route to avoid the draft. Quite a few of my contemporaries did go across the Atlantic, under other auspices, and stayed.
So I undertook to the Commonwealth Fund that I would return after a year, and obviously I stuck by that and had to come back after my spell in Ann Arbor.
JBR: Would you have stayed in America to avoid going into the army or would you have stayed in America because of your career motivation?
WGC: It's hard to say which. I had been awarded that post-doctoral fellowship for two years; if I'd stayed another year I'd gone beyond the age of 26 and they couldn't have drafted me. As I said, I came back at the end of that year, but I certainly wouldn't have come back if I had not been forced to do so by that undertaking to the Commonwealth Fund. I was very impressed by what was happening in palaeobotany and palynology in the States. It was THE place one had to go to in those days and so I had been keen to go, but a prime motivation in my bidding to go had been to avoid two years in the army. As it was, I came back and went into the army for two years, convinced that this was going to wreck my career, and all my contemporaries would get two years ahead of me, and so on. In reality it didn't really work out that way. Incidentally, I also met my American wife-to-be on the boat on the way back, on the Queen Mary, and that had a big influence on my life - I'm still happily married to her - so that was the turn of events; coming back to do my army service, I met my wife. We spent most of my two army years in Germany, which proved unexpectedly rewarding in many ways.
When I came back from the States in the late summer of 1954 I went to the Paris Botanical Congress and met a number of European palaeobotanists and palynologists, most notably Remy and Potonié. I had already corresponded quite a lot with Remy - he and his wife were working on Carboniferous spores in-situ, the same kind of interest that I had, learning what plants produced which spores. They actually hunted me out in Germany when I was in the army there, and we had a pleasant visit together. Of course after that we kept in touch very closely, until he died only a few years ago.
JBR: Can we go back to the Neves Effect?
WGC: Yes, of course. Roger Neves had published a paper in the Geological Magazine in 1958, describing, in effect, the changes that occur in spore assemblages as you go through a rhythmic depositional cycle in the Coal Measures. He found that the spore assemblage in the marine phase was very different from that in the non-marine shale and the coal-forming phase of the cycle. He had suggested that the most abundant spore type - Florinites, the pollen of the Cordaites - in the marine phase were therefore likely to be the plants growing along the sea margin, as distinct from the vegetation of the coal swamp. Kuyl, Waterbolk and Muller had recently (1955) published their account of Venezuelan palynology, where in the Tertiary it is clear what the main vegetation types are, and how the spore assemblages they produce respond to changes in base level. I suggested in a letter to the Geological Magazine (1958) that by analogy with their observations, it seemed more likely that the process that Roger was observing was a result of the Cordaites representing forest of a more or less permanent character growing extensively in the hinterland of Carboniferous time, rather than along the sea margin. During a sea-level high, I suggested, the pollen of those hinterland forests dominated the spore assemblage accumulating offshore, while when the lycopod-dominated coal swamp vegetation spread over the lower lying areas during a sea-level low phase, their spores dominated the assemblage. That paper of Roger's prompted me later to have Marjorie Muir, who did the MSc in micropalaeontology at University College,
see whether the same process operated in the Mesozoic of Yorkshire. In our Deltaic Series there are a series of cyclothem-like sequences from a marine phase through to mini-coal seams, and this gave the chance to see whether the same process (that we later called "the Neves Effect") operated in the Jurassic as in the Carboniferous. That was her PhD topic, for which we got a NERC grant, which did indeed show th same phenomenon, and we later published jointly on those results. Up to a point, (perhaps depending on your viewpoint !), I suppose that vindicated my interpretation of Roger's results.
JBR: So, your interactions with Roger were always good ones?
WGC: Oh yes, absolutely. I mean, we disagreed on the interpretation of those particular data, but later I was invited to act as examiner for several PhD students of his, of which I think the first was Alan Marshall. He did some rather comparable work. He looked at spores in seat-earths, comparing them with the spores in the overlying coal seam, amongst other things. He went into the hydrocarbon industry in the United States, as a palynologist. Tragically, he died in a drowning accident, while still a young man. Alan Marshall was one of two palynologists that I knew well who died of drowning: the other was Robin Clark, who did his PhD with me on British Permian and Triassic spores. It was a terrible tragedy that he, too, died as a young man, drowning in his case in a swimming pool, also in America.
Anyway, to return to where we had got to, when I came back from the States in 1954. I had gone into the army for two years with a great foreboding that it was going to sink my whole career; but such were the crazy circumstances of those times, I was offered three jobs while I was in the army; just offered them! Those jobs were: - to replace Edwards at the Natural History Museum as palaeobotanist, to replace Crookall who had just retired - Stubblefield offered me that job - and I was offered a job at University College London, in the Botany Department, by the then head of department, Pearsall. It was a miracle. Nowadays, when I think of the deserving, very competent and able young PhD students who are looking for posts, I feel ashamed that I had at that point in my career been offered three plum jobs, with any one of which I would have been very happy. Of course I couldn't take them right away, but they all said they could wait, and when the University College job came along (the last of those three) I jumped at that. I wanted to get into a university position, I didn't particularly want to work at the Survey, and rather less, the Natural History Museum, but I would have been delighted to take either of those jobs if I hadn't had the chance of doing something else. One of the other ironies of that time was that the salary I started on at University College was less than I was being paid in the army. I had had the salary of a National Service Second Lieutenant, and though I forget the exact figure, I think I started at UC at £700 a year, which was less than the army had been paying me, and I felt pretty miserable about that. But I was at least getting a foot on the university ladder.
JBR: So that would be mid-1950's, 1955?
WGC: It was 1956 - I started teaching in University College in 1956.
JBR: At that time were you the only palaeobotanist/palynologist on the staff?
WGC: Yes, I was the only palaeobotanist and certainly, if I was any kind of palynologist, I was the only palynologist in University College. When Professor Tom Barnard started the MSc in Micropalaeontology, I would have said in the mid-1960's maybe, he invited me to teach some palynology as part of that course. There was no one else in that field in the College. Dinoflagellate cyst/acritarch palynology didn't really exist then. The literature of palaeopalynology was most helpfully limited. There were only about a dozen papers of any consequence that one needed to have read: Schopf, Wilson and Bentall's Annotated Synopsis of Paleozoic Spores was a sort of bible, describing all the known genera with helpful drawings and descriptions. The Potonié school at Krefeld were just taking off with their major Carboniferous papers, and with the publication by Shell of the Kuyl, Waterbolk and Muller paper that I just mentioned, the floodgates of oil-based palynology were just opening. In Britain, Moore's group in Sheffield and Norman Hughes in Cambridge were, in their different ways, beginning to make serious palynology a significant component of micropalaeontology. I was very lucky to have come into University College when I did, and to have the challenge of teaching palynology that Tom Barnard gave me with the MSc. It took me away from the in-situ spore interest that had taken me into palynology, and caused me to read much more widely than I would for my own mainly botanical interests.
JBR: And did you welcome that expansion?
WGC: Yes, very much. I enjoyed reaching out into stratigraphic palynology so far as I was able, teaching the MSc. But it gave me research students like Marjorie Muir, Robin Clarke, and a number of others later. The major phase of North Sea exploration was under way, and I did consulting work with Palaeoservices. I often brought material from North Sea drilling into the laboratory for the MSc practicals, which was helpful to me, and brought a sense of reality into the course they were taking.
In my early years at University College, my wife and I went to the States most summers to spend with her parents in Maine, and I combined this with getting to meetings there and keeping in touch with people like Jim Schopf and Harlan Banks at Cornell, and I gave occasional lectures in the States on those family visits.
JBR: Did you have much to do with Alfred Traverse, at Penn State?
WGC: Yes, I had visited Penn State, back in 1954 and saw Spackman who headed the "Anthracology Lab." there, but that was long before Al Traverse went to Penn State. He came to visit Arnold, while I was with him in Ann Arbor. He had just finished his doctoral work with Barghoorn at Harvard on the Brandon Lignite, and was about to start work on lignite in an industrial post somewhere in the West. We all went out to Grand Ledge in Michigan, which was one of the open cast coal mines there, and collected Carboniferous fossil plants together - Arnold, Traverse, and I. It was my first meeting with Traverse, and we got on well together. I'll tell you this too-often told story, very quickly. When we had finished our fossil collecting, Al got out of his "field work trousers" with the ignition key in the pocket, chucked them in the boot of the car and slammed the door. Now the car wasn't locked, but we couldn't access the boot from the inside, so we were getting ready to walk about 10 miles to the nearest garage; but I said "I'm sure we can start the car without the key". I took some wire from the fire extinguisher, and there were three terminals behind the ignition switch, and I just shorted across between each pair of the three until on one of the connections it fired, the car started, and we drove off. Al Traverse was delightfully impressed that this Brit, who didn't even own a car anyway, was able to hotrod his car. He was convinced it was evidence of a missspent youth, but I'd never done that in my life before!
JBR: A great story.
WGC: Well, as I explained earlier, I visited a number of palaeobotanical centres during that spring and summer of 1954, and saw Spackman, but at that time there was no particular connection with Traverse. Later, in 1961, Spackman invited me to go to Penn State for a year, and teach a course in palynology. I was at that time writing up the lycopods for the Traité de Paleobotanique, one of the larger items I ever wrote. I thought this would be an interesting experience, and got a year's leave from University College. I was already teaching the MSc in palynology there. Anyway, I did go to Penn State for a year and taught a masters course in palynology, and one in elementary biostratigraphy to a huge class of about 150 students. They were just doing it as their one science requirement. (They all had to do one science and thought geology was an easy option, so it was quite a popular course!). Teaching that course was great fun. It forced me to learn something about American geology and palaeontology. The masters course was taken by about half a dozen graduates. Gill Brenner was one of them, Dan Habib was another and there were two or three others. I can't recall any other names at the moment, but several of them went into palynology. Thinking back, I greatly enjoyed running that course, too. At the end of my time there I was offered a job at Penn State and I was terribly torn - I didn't want to settle down, in a mid-western American university, something of an academic cul-de-sac as I then perceived it! My wife would have loved me to settle there.
We had a super life, with a house on the edge of the campus. We would go swimming, in a lake a mere ten-minute drive from the campus in the summer, and you could go and skate on the same lake in the winter! We had the kids in school then, two of them, youngsters, and it was a great life, but as I say, I was filled with indecision. I accepted the job, I came back here, University College offered me a readership and I then sent a telegram, (as one could in those days - pre-e-mail!), saying "I'm very sorry, I'm not taking your position" and I felt very remiss about it. One of those bad moments in life, and I know my wife would have liked to have gone back to the States. Anyway, I got the readership and settled down here and that was the end of that episode.
Much later Kremp then went to Penn State to take up that position. They were already producing the Fossil Spore Catalogue there, but then Kremp moved on to Arizona. I think he wasn't happy with the teaching at Penn State. The language thing was a bit of a problem for him, and he never really settled in as a University teacher at Penn State. He went off to Arizona and then Al Traverse came into that position. Al used to say that I had designed the layout of his palynology laboratory, which was indeed the case, although it was not completed until Al arrived. But that was quite a few years later. He, meantime, had worked in Shell for some years, of course.
JBR: I didn't realise you could easily have ended up Stateside.
WGC: Yes, well, more than once; like many of my contemporaries, I had more than one chance of crossing the Atlantic for good. I went to Berkeley soon after my Penn State episode, to be interviewed for a position there as a palynologist. Al Traverse applied for the same job, and we were both interviewed, but at different times. I never knew what they thought of me, or Traverse, or a third guy, who was a Quaternary palynologist out of New England. The three of us were short-listed. Job offers were handled in a fairly laid-back way at that time, even in Berkeley, and we duly gave seminars and met the staff and were interviewed, but they never made an appointment. There were strong factional forces in operation at that time, in paleontology in Berkeley. There were two vehemently opposed schools within the Department, going back historically to some terrible vendetta and that was all rather off-putting. It would have been a difficult environment to move into and it remained a really difficult scene at Berkeley through that decade.
JBR: Do you think at the time you would have preferred the sort of California environment at Berkeley to back east in Pennsylvania?
WGC: Yes, absolutely. I loved California. I thought it was the place to go. I was also offered a job down in La Habra, but that was in an oil company. They were recruiting anybody who knew a spore from an ostracod at that time and they contacted me very warmly and enthusiastically and offered me a salary of about three times my university salary. American salaries of any kind were far above ours. But I didn't really waiver for long over that particular job. I didn't want to go into oil company palynology, especially later when I heard some of the stories about that particular situation. I must be guarded in what I say, if this is heading into AASP archives, but I was glad I didn't take that job at La Habra.
So those were my three American possibilities, none of which materialised. Later the University of Massachusetts gave me a three-year visiting Professorship (1988-1991), which I enjoyed very much, but that was in a Botany Department, and involved two lecturing visits of a week or so each year. It was a great chance to think, and meet interesting people.
JBR: At that time, in the 1960's, you must have been aware of the inception of AASP, did you regularly attend meetings at that early stage?
WGC: No, I didn't at all. There was the first meeting of the International Palynological Congress in Arizona, the year that I was in Penn State, in the spring of 1962. I remember flying down there with Bill Spackman and I met Godwin, the Cambridge palynologist, for the first time, and many other people, some of whom I'd seen on my earlier travels, but many European palynologists came to that, and I think that was the first truly international palynological conference that I went to.
But as for the AASP, I had my first contact with them when they had their Annual Meeting in Baton Rouge in October 1968. I gave an invited paper, and met a whole lot of American palynologists, some of them for the first time.
JBR: So I guess George Hart was there?
WGC: Yes, that's right, he was. George was already at Baton Rouge on the faculty there, and of course had his family with him. We went down New Orleans and had a meal together. I remember that very vividly. I'd not been to New Orleans before, and found that unique interplay between the Spanish and America cultures exciting - a very different version of the USA from New England or the Mid-West!
Some years later I went to the AASP meeting in Reston, Virginia, in 1984, when I felt greatly honoured to be given the AASP medal "for scientific excellence".
JBR: Would you like to say anything about the time you spent at Royal Holloway. Where does that fit into the time appraisal?
WGC: Yes, well, I had shunted around four colleges of London University between 1956 and 1985. While I was Reader in the Botany Department at University College, I was sent on secondment to the University of Nigeria in 1965, with the assignment of merging a botany department with a zoology department to make a unified biology school. London University was doing a lot of secondments to second-world universities at that time. I took my family along, and the week after we arrived the Nigerians had their "first revolution", as they liked to call it, when they threw out the old President and put in a military government. Of course we saw all that happening, and it was both a bit scary and quite exciting. Botanically it was exciting in a different way, to see rainforest, mangroves and savannah, and I taught a whole range of things in the University that I would not have felt competent to do in London! Then the Nigerian Civil War started, a week after we left, fortunately. We were very lucky that my year's assignment ended when it did!
A year or two later I moved on to Birkbeck College. That was in 1972. That was my first real move, to take up a Chair in Britain. It was while I was in Birkbeck that I was really staggered to be made a Fellow the Royal Society. It had simply never entered my mind that that was a possibility. It had quite a profound effect on me. Mainly, it gave me confidence in the belief that the kind of science I had been doing was seen to be worthwhile, at least by some fellow scientists!
I was in Birkbeck College for 7 years, until 1979. Eventually I got rather fed up with night teaching, often 3 nights a week, getting home about 10 o'clock and my wife was of like mind! So when I was offered the chance of the Chair of Botany in Bedford College, daytime college, lovely setting in Regents Park - lake, our own botanic garden and glasshouses - I jumped at that. But I'd only been there a couple of years and the whole of their finances began to collapse, as with several other small London colleges. There was no real prospect of its survival, going it alone in Regents Park, so we went into merger with Royal Holloway College, which was in a similar situation, out at Egham in Surrey. I had only been in Bedford for about 2½ years when the negotiations with Royal Holloway got under way. For 2 years I commuted, with many of my Bedford colleagues, between the two colleges, teaching alternate days at Holloway and Bedford. Then finally we all moved down there in 1985. I was very lucky in that I lived on the right side of London, so I didn't need to move house, as many of my colleagues did. So I ended up in my fourth London College, Royal Holloway!
We were very fortunate to join a department with people most of whom we already knew very well. They were extremely helpful and friendly and many of them moved out of their rooms to make space for the newcomers. That helped to create a very positive atmosphere in the new merged department. I was given a very nice office and laboratory, and was able to recruit a new group of research students. Other departments in the merged College had all manner of troubles. Then some years later Botany merged with Zoology, to make Biology, and that merged with Biochemistry to end up as the School of Life Sciences, which I headed for about 2 years, until I retired. That's 8 years ago now.
By good chance, two of my ex-research students, Andrew Scott (who had been on the staff of Chelsea College) and Margaret Collinson (who had been in Kings College) were by now in the Geology Department of the merged College at Egham. They persuaded the Head of the Geology Department, Derek Blundell, that I should be allowed to join his department in an honorary capacity. The department very generously allocated me a room, and I had access to the Palaeobotany research lab. In that setting I was able to continue my research, and publish two or three papers each year in my retirement. I still do a little teaching in various places, including my eight lectures in "land plant palynology" to the MSc group each year at University College. I consider myself very privileged to be allowed to continue teaching at my age, and to have the chance to exchange ideas with the younger generation in that way.