Obituary: Norman Tebble

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The Independent Culture
NORMAN TEBBLE's long and successful career in the academic world culminated in his appointment in 1971 as Director of the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh.

He was born at East Sleekburn, a mining area of Northumberland, in 1924. As one of six children he realised early on in life that he needed to escape the hardship he saw everyday, so he worked hard to win a scholarship to Bedlington Grammar School.

During the Second World War the armed services offered a scheme known as the University Short Course Scheme whereby you could qualify for university and eventually train for a military career. Tebble matriculated at St Andrews University in 1942 but less than a year later interrupted his studies to join the RAFVR where he qualified as a pilot. He eventually went on to serve in Burma and India.

Flying gave him tremendous confidence but although he loved it he knew that after the war he didn't want a life as a commercial pilot. Instead he returned to St Andrews and palaeontology (the study of fossils) where he developed an interest in Foraminifera (microscopic, single-cell testaceous animals) and, for his undergraduate project, became the honours medallist. There was enormous encouragement from David Burt (acting head of the Zoology Dept) who became his life-long friend.

It was Burt who recognised Tebble's skills as a systematist and pointed him in the direction of the British Museum of Natural History. He wrote to the Shell Oil Company and asked for a summer job at the palaeontology laboratory in the Hague. There he worked on foraminifera and learnt the fundamentals of systematics from other workers who taught him to describe only what he saw and not what the literature sources said should be seen.

In 1950, with this valuable insight into taxonomy, he applied for his first job in a museum, as a scientific officer at the British Museum of Natural History (now the Natural History Museum), responsible for numerous phyla (groups) of invertebrates. He took an interest in polychaetes (marine worms), which continued throughout his life, and he began publication on British polychaetes. While employed in the Zoology Department he met another zoologist, Mary Archer, whom he married in 1954.

Tebble developed his interest in pelagic polychaetes (open water species) and was awarded a John Murray Travelling Studentship from the Royal Society of London in 1958. With his wife and young family he left to work at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in La Jolla, California. Here he continued his work on pelagic polychaetes and gathered more skills in identification and taxonomy. In his research on pelagic polychaetes from the Atlantic and Pacific he showed for the first time that there were hydrological boundaries in the open ocean, restricting the distribution of pelagic species.

After returning to the British Museum of Natural History, in 1961 he was transferred against his will to the Mollusca (sea shell) collection. This was the beginning of many battles with his colleagues and managers. He was not a person to take injustice lightly and he dealt with problems by pushing himself, and others who worked with him, even harder to achieve results. With his enthusiasm and focused approach to work he set about completely reorganising the very large shell collection. A few years later he had published British Bivalve Seashells (1966), a comprehensive guide to cockles, oysters, clams and so on, which is still in demand today.

Another turning point in his career was his appointment in 1968 at Oxford University, where he had two roles, one as Curator of the Zoology Collections and another as University Lecturer in Zoology. Although he had no previous teaching experience he was voted best lecturer in Zoology by the students. In his three years at Oxford he also developed the exhibitions with an eye for the general public as well as students.

This experience was perfectly timed for his role as Director of the Royal Scottish Museum (now the Royal Museum) in 1971. It was a position that he enjoyed immensely, as he had a strong sense of public accountability. He was not hindered by the bureaucracy of committees as the museum was at that time part of the Scottish Education Department. He saw his role as one responsible to the general public and one of his first innovations was to set up an Education Department which would be pivotal in interpreting the complex concepts of a multi- discipline organisation.

He also set about acquiring other buildings and collections such as the Museum of Flight, the Costume Museum at New Abbey and Biggar Gasworks. His goal-orientated approach led to conflicts with colleagues both at the museum and in the Scottish Office but he was not concerned if others liked him or not.

He made a point of visiting all staff and knew everyone by name. He had what is known as the common touch and could talk easily about subjects from football (he was a Newcastle supporter) to English poetry. During his time as Director he found time to publish on polychaetes again and worked on the Scottish Fauna.

He fought hard with the Williams Committee, set up in 1979 by the Secretary of State for Scotland to investigate the status of museums and galleries in Scotland. Tebble, although a skilled negotiator, said the enquiry was "like doing 15 rounds with a heavyweight" and was proud that he lasted the duration of the match. The result was what he had fought for - a recommendation that the Royal Scottish Museum should remain with the Scottish Education Department. Events overtook this possibility and on his retirement in 1984 the RSM became a trustee body.

Although he held demanding public office he enjoyed a very private home life and was devoted to his wife and family.

Susan J. Chambers

Norman Tebble, marine biologist and biogeographer: born Sleekdale, Northumberland 17 August 1924; Curator of Molluscs, British Museum 1961-68; University Lecturer in Zoology and Curator, Zoological Collection, Oxford University 1968-71; Curator, Oxford University Museum 1969-71; Director, Royal Scottish Museum 1971-84; married 1954 Mary Archer (two sons, one daughter); died North Berwick, Lothian 23 July 1998.