Humphry Bowen

Click to follow

Humphry John Moule Bowen, chemist and naturalist: born Oxford 22 June 1929; Lecturer in Chemistry, Reading University 1964-74, Reader in Chemistry 1974-88, Honorary Fellow 1988-94; married 1953 Ursula Williams (three sons; marriage dissolved), 1984 Muriel Willson; died Dorchester 9 August 2001.

Humphry Bowen was an amateur naturalist with a width of expertise that has rarely been seen since the days of the great Victorians. He wrote two county floras in his lifetime and was the most prolific contributor to a third. He amassed collections of plants, molluscs and lepidoptera from around the world which have been made available to museums and national collections. He was BSBI (Botanical Society of the British Isles) recorder for Berkshire and for Dorset for 40 years, and a lifelong champion of the need for environmental conservation, working tirelessly for local naturalist trusts.

Born in Oxford in 1929, the son of the physical chemist E.J. Bowen, a senior fellow of University College, he was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford, from where he won a scholarship to Rugby and then a demyship to Magdalen College in chemistry.

As a child, he was allowed free rein to bicycle round the countryside, and the rural idyll rubbed off on him. He developed a remarkable temperament, seemingly never moody and with an innocence suffused with a wonderful, puckish sense of humour. As an accomplished actor at school, he once played Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. At Oxford he acted Joseph in a nativity play with an 18-year-old Ronnie Barker playing "Hell". Bowen's headmaster at Rugby had described him as "that rarity, a cultured scientist".

Botany seemed to be in his genes. He was identifying plants from the age of five – he was later proud when one of his own sons, as a four-year-old, astonished his nursery teacher by telling her the Latin name of the fungus that she was showing to the class – and was certainly making records of his finds in Dorset before the Second World War. He was secretary of the Rugby Natural History Society in his teens and found ling (common heather) in the Rugby district – the first record of it there for over 60 years.

Bowen won the Gibbs Prize for chemistry at Oxford and, after graduating with a First, took a DPhil. He left Oxford, after a brief spell lecturing, to work for the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell. In 1953 he married Ursula Williams, whom he had met at university and who shared his love of natural history. They soon had three sons.

At Harwell his main areas of research centred around the use of Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) – a highly sensitive, multi-element analysis technique for which he used the Bepo (British Experimental Pile Operation) reactor. He wrote papers on trace elements in human blood and faeces. For the former (and presumably the latter) he needed human guinea-pigs to provide samples. Unable to use hypodermics (the manganese in the needle would cause contamination), he made small incisions in the earlobe using a sharp piece of silica. Thinking that he should contribute himself, he drew blood from his own ear and promptly fainted.

In 1956 Bowen joined a team of scientists for the UK atomic bomb tests at Maralinga in Australia. His role was to analyse plant and animal material to understand the effects of fallout on living things. From his descriptions of safety procedures issued on the tests, little was known about the subject at the time. Although not impressed with the scientific results, he enjoyed the camaraderie in the outback and particularly the flora and fauna. He grew a beard and his colleagues wagered that his wife would make him shave it off. At Heathrow she failed to recognise him until he was a few inches away, calling her name. He won the bet and never shaved for the rest of his life.

During his time at Harwell he often had cause to visit the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston. Here security was tight but occasionally Bowen would absent-mindedly forget his pass. He managed to gain entry by confidently holding up a shoe-repair ticket at the window of his car and being waved through by the guards.

In 1963 he moved from Harwell to live in Oxford and joined the chemistry department at Reading University as a lecturer (and from 1974 as Reader). He continued his work using NAA and is remembered for the introduction of the analytical standard known as "Bowen's Kale". This was a vat of putrefying cabbage kept in an old plastic baby bath in his lab. Samples were sent off around the world to calibrate analyses.

While at Reading, Bowen was retained by Dunlop as a consultant to look at possible uses for their Dunlopillo polyurethane foam. He published several papers on its ability to separate heavy metals (particularly gold, uranium, rhodium and iridium) from solution.

In 1967 he was horrified by the environmental devastation caused by the world's first major oil-tanker spillage – the Torrey Canyon disaster – and at the inability of the authorities to react. He developed the idea of a huge foam "boom" that could be deployed to contain the oil. This was too late for the Scilly Isles, but the idea has been developed and is still in use.

He was seconded many times by the International Atomic Energy Authority to set up research projects in developing countries – India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bulgaria, Iran – and through this work he attracted many foreign PhD students back to Reading. He published several books on chemistry, notably Chemical Applications of Radioisotopes (1969) and Trace Elements in Biochemistry (1966). He also edited the Royal Society publication Environmental Chemistry of the Elements (1979).

Bowen had joined the BSBI in 1951 and in 1956 became a council member as Honorary General Secretary of the meetings committee. He was not always completely organised, sometimes arriving without the minutes and once neglecting to book anywhere for members to get refreshments after an AGM. This produced panic among the rest of the committee, who had to rustle up a buffet for 60 people from scratch.

In 1961 he became BSBI recorder for Dorset and four years later also for Berkshire. He was meticulous with his records, marking the society's printed cards with a stubby pencil. In 1968 he published his first county flora, for Berkshire (The Flora of Berkshire) – the first for 70 years. In the days before computers this was a monumental task, which involved collating all recent plant records for the county using vast card indexes and illustrating the occurrence of each species with a hand-stencilled map. He was unable to find a suitable publisher, so he and his wife took the role upon themselves. This involved considerable financial risk and an enormous amount of administration, but it paid off and the book was a sell-out.

All through this period Bowen was active in local naturalist trusts, including the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Naturalist Trust (BBONT, now BBOWT) and Reading Naturalists, sitting on committees, leading field trips, raising money and advising on the management of nature reserves. He also pioneered "botanical holidays", travelling as guest lecturer on tours to many foreign destinations. He made vast collections of specimens wherever he went, not only of plants, but also of molluscs and lepidoptera. These were painstakingly preserved and often donated to museums and national collections to aid with future identifications.

Bowen's breadth of knowledge of the natural world was extraordinary; you could give him any flowering plant, moss, lichen, shell, insect, bird or mammal and he could name it. This made him popular on field trips, although he used to complain that when nature really called it was impossible for him to get away from people.

His two areas of speciality were alien (i.e. non-native) plants and lichens. He was never happier than when botanising on a good rubbish dump looking for the former, or closely examining the gravestones in an old churchyard for the latter. He was convinced that lichens were one of the best indicators of environmental pollution, or the lack of it.

After his divorce from Ursula, in 1984 he married Muriel Willson. When he retired from Reading University in 1988 they moved to Winterborne Kingston in Dorset – a county with which he had a lifelong affiliation, since his mother had built a holiday home at Ringstead Bay before the war. There he sang tenor in the local church choir and created a wonderful garden full of interesting specimens grown from seeds collected on his trips around the world. He also kept a portion of land as a wild area, a small private nature reserve with its own pond. His proud boast was that the rubbish men never needed to visit; all waste was recycled as compost or ash.

He played an active part in the Dorset Wildlife Trust. When asked how he managed to record so many small mammal sightings around his house, he was forced to admit that most of them were identified from remains brought in by his many cats. He made the largest single contribution of records to the 1998 Flora of Oxfordshire by Woodell, Killick and Perry.

Humphry Bowen's final work was to produce a new Flora of Dorset, published last year. This is his magnum opus, eclipsing its 50-year-old predecessor, and is uniquely comprehensive, covering flowering plants, stoneworts, ferns, mosses, liverworts, algae, lichens and fungi. It is a fitting memorial to the breadth of his scholarship.

Will Bowen