Derek Reid

Kew mycologist whose acquaintance with fungi in their natural habitat was unrivalled
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The Independent Online

Derek Agutter Reid, mycologist: born Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire 2 September 1927; staff, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 1951-87, Head of Mycology 1974-87; married 1953 Pamela Saich (one son; marriage dissolved), 1987 Sheila Glover; died Chichester, West Sussex 18 January 2006.

Derek Reid was perhaps the only Englishman in recent times who could go for a walk and, at least in the right season, find his namesake in the grass at every step. Hygrocybe reidii, known in English as the Honey Waxcap, is an attractive orange toadstool. It was named in Reid's honour by the French mycologist Robert Kühner in 1976 and is now known to be one of the commonest toadstools in unimproved pasture. Reid was lucky: as toadstools go, Hygrocybe reidii is colourful, charming and pleasant-scented. His waxcap was one of no fewer than eight species of fungi named after him during his lifetime.

Reid was widely regarded as the finest field mycologist of his generation. His professional career as a mycologist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was crowned by his promotion in 1974 to Head of Mycology, regarded as the top mycological post in Britain. He remained in that post until his retirement 13 years later. He actively encouraged people to send in material to Kew for identification and was at the centre of an enormous correspondence with field mycologists from home and all over the world.

Much of his day-to-day work required long hours at the microscope and comparing specimens with dried material in reference collections. Fortunately his employers encouraged mycologists and botanists to travel and develop contacts throughout the world as well as to develop their scientific skills in little-known areas. Reid made full use of that licence. At home he lived with his wife and son in a cottage within the gardens, close to his place of work in the Mycology Building. There he entertained overseas visitors and often took them on fungus forays after a good dinner the previous evening.

Unlike some professional mycologists, Reid was at heart a field naturalist and teacher with an unrivalled acquaintance with fungi in their natural habitat. Always an enthusiast, he had the knack of inspiring others with his love of fungi and was as responsible as anyone for the growth of field mycology in Britain in recent times. His regular fungus forays over 47 years in his home county of Bedfordshire made that county's fungi among the best studied in Britain. He also taught residential courses on field mycology at Preston Montfort Field Centre in Shropshire and Juniper Hall in Surrey. He ran weekend courses for the Countryside Education Trust in the New Forest and evening classes at London University.

Reid was known to a wider public through his popular Kingfisher Guide Mushrooms and Toadstools (1980), which was translated into French and German. He was also editor of the outstandingly successful Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Britain and Northern Europe by Roger Phillips (1981).

Because the details and colours of fungi are more easily captured in drawings and watercolours than photographs, many mycologists become excellent draftsmen. Reid routinely illustrated his scientific papers with well-crafted coloured drawings, all done in the evenings at home. Many were published in his series Coloured Icones of Rare and Interesting Fungi for the journal Nova Hedwigia. Some of the "interesting fungi" were quite bizarre, such as Amanita nauseosa, a tall parasol-like toadstool related to the Death Cap that was sniffed out from the glasshouses at Kew by its distinctive smell of vomit. More of Reid's paintings are in the national collection at Kew where they illustrate type specimens and other noteworthy material.

Away from his beloved fungi Reid was initially a quiet, studious man who watched birds, bred canaries and collected dragonflies. In the 1970s he seemed to blossom, covering his prematurely bald pate with a luxuriant, lop-sided wig and wearing an eye-watering tie chosen from his large collection. He had quick wits and a mischievous sense of humour. Late in life he discovered an unlikely taste for bingo.

His work allowed him to travel extensively in search of fungi in Europe, Australia, Africa, North America and the Caribbean. He was particularly attached to South Africa and, especially after his retirement, wrote a large and definitive series of papers on the local mushrooms and toadstools. At the invitation of his friend Professor Albert Eicker, Reid took up the post of Visiting Professor at the University of Pretoria in 1989.

Derek Reid was born at Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, where his parents ran a picture-framing business. He was passionately interested in natural history from boyhood, and at the local Cedars School his headmaster noted his "distinct promise" in botany. After National Service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Reid went on to take a degree in botany and geology at University College, Hull. In 1951 he joined the staff of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew; he was promoted to senior scientific officer seven years later. His scholarly monograph on the mainly tropical fungi known as stipitate (stalked) stereums won him a PhD from London University in 1964.

Reid forayed for fungi in five continents, discovering many new species in the process. He was the author of nearly 200 scientific papers in mycological and botanical journals. One of the groups in which he specialised was the genus Amanita, which includes the well-known Fly Agaric as well as the Death Cap, the world's most poisonous mushroom. He pioneered the study of these stately toadstools in Australia and South Africa, as well as discovering several new species in Britain. Another favourite group was the Aphyllophorales, fungi which form crusts on logs and branches, on which Reid became a world authority. As study aids he kept a card-index file of some 200,000 references (he never took to computer filing) and 300 boxes of mycological papers.

In 1953, Reid married Pamela Saich, whom he met on a fungus foray. Their son, David, inherited his father's love of natural history but became an expert on shells rather than fungi. The couple divorced in the 1970s. In 1987, Reid married his second wife, Sheila Glover, who also worked at Kew. In retirement they moved to the village of Elmer on the Sussex coast.

Reid continued to teach and write professional papers well into his seventies. His large private herbarium, card index and papers have been acquired by Kew Gardens.

Peter Marren

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