Obituary: Nicholas Polunin

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The Independent Online
Nicholas Polunin, botanist and environmentalist: born Checkendon, Oxfordshire 26 June 1909; Fielding Curator and Keeper of the University Herbaria, Oxford, and University Demonstrator and Lecturer in Botany 1939- 47; Macdonald Professor of Botany, McGill University, Canada 1947-52; Founding Editor, Environmental Conservation 1974-95; CBE 1976; Co-Editor, Environmental Challenges 1993-97; married 1939 Helen Lovat Fraser (died 1973; one son; marriage dissolved 1947), 1948 Helen Eugenie Campbell (two sons, one daughter); died Geneva 8 December 1997.

Nicholas Polunin was one of the world's foremost and most ardent champions of environmental conservation as well as a distinguished botanist, writer and explorer. From the mid-1960s he was in the vanguard of promoting the public appreciation and maintenance of the global biosphere, which he did ceaselessly until just days before his death.

In his scientific travels and research in the far North, Africa and the Middle East, he became aware of the deteriorating conditions of the global environment, which he attributed to over-population, over-consumption, and over- pollution, which were leading to ever more serious global environmental deterioration. This caused him in 1966 to abandon his further Arctic research and writing to devote himself to addressing global problems.

His tireless devotion to nature in its own right has since set the standard of environmental ethics for ecologists, environmentalists, and others throughout the world. He founded magazines on ecologically grounded conservation questions, wrote books examining environmental problems and solutions, and set up the Foundation for Environmental Conservation which organised four international conferences.

Polunin was born in Checkendon, England in 1909 into an artistic-theatrical background: his father Vladimir Polunin was a Russian-born forester turned artist who had worked as a designer for Diaghilev - Picasso had painted sets for him - while his mother Elizabeth was another artist. His two siblings also pursued distinguished academic careers, Oleg (who is now dead) in botany and plant geography, and Ivan (who lives in Singapore) in medical anthropology.

Polunin received his formal training at Christ Church, Oxford, from where he graduated in 1932 with First Class Honours in Botany and Ecology, at Yale University, where he received his MSc in 1934, and again at Oxford (MA and DPhil 1935; DSc 1942). His early scholarly activities were devoted to plant geography with emphasis on the flora of Spitsbergen, Lapland, Greenland, Iceland, Labrador, and various islands of the Canadian eastern arctic.

While an an undergraduate at Oxford he had taken part in a number of expeditions, which he turned into books. The first was a voyage on the White Sea, described in Russian Waters (1931, with a foreword by John Buchan). The following year he studied the plant life on Akpatok Island in the Hudson Strait, which he wrote about in The Isle of Auks (1932).

During further botanical explorations in the Thirties in Arctic Canada, Greenland, Iceland and Lapland he identified various arctic plants new to science and established botanical evidence for Viking movements between the North American mainland and Greenland - he was an excellent dog-sledge traveller.

In 1939 he was appointed Demonstrator and Lecturer in Botany, and Keeper of the Herbaria at Oxford; he was already Senior Research Fellow and Tutor in Botany at New College. Eight years later, prompted by the break-up of his first marriage, he took up the Chair of Botany at McGill University, Montreal.

It was while here in 1948 that he went as a botanist on the Canadian Arctic Survey which discovered in the Foxe Basin the last major islands to be added to the world's map: Air Force Island, Prince Charles Island (Prince Charles was born the same year) and Foley Island. The trip is recounted in Arctic Unfolding (1949).

After a stint at Yale University (1952-55), Polunin helped to establish both the University of Baghdad in Iraq (1956-58) and the University of Ife in Ibadan, Nigeria (1962-66), with special responsibility for their faculties of science. On both occasions he left because of political unrest.

He had earlier served as research project director of the United States Air Force Floating Ice Island project in the Arctic Ocean and as scientific adviser to the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

In 1967 he founded the scholarly journal Biological Conservation which he then edited until 1974. In that year he founded the quarterly journal Environmental Conservation, which aimed to be useful for influencing government policy. He quickly built it up to become the recognised leader in its field and edited it until 1995, at which point his son Nicholas, a professor of marine biology, took over.

Polunin also organised and sponsored four influential International Conferences on Environmental Future during the period 1971 to 1990 that each time brought together for fruitful interaction the leading figures in the field from both academia and government world-wide: "The Environmental Future", 1972; "Growth Without Ecodisasters?", 1980; "Maintainance of the Biosphere", 1990; "Surviving with the Biosphere", 1993.

In 1975, with assistance from the World Conservation Union and the World Wide Fund for Nature, Polunin founded, and directed until his death, the Foundation for Environmental Conservation (Geneva), which among other achievements has encouraged and supported numerous activities and publications in its field; and has awarded related cash prizes for demonstrated excellence.

In 1983 he was instrumental in establishing the World Council for the Biosphere (Geneva), which promoted public recognition of the growing environmental threats in the world, one of whose project since 1991 has been to promote World Biosphere Day, now celebrated world-wide each autumnal equinox. And in 1988 he helped establish the International Vernadsky Foundation and its associated Centre for World Biosphere Studies in Pushchino, Russia. Vernadsky was a turn-of-the-century Russian geologist who was among the first to recognise the interaction between the non-living and living components of the globe, thereby laying the foundation for the modern environmental movement.

Numerous technical articles and monographs resulted from these efforts. Prominent among his earlier scientific works are Botany of the Canadian Eastern Arctic (three volumes, 1940-48) and the authoritative Circumpolar Arctic Flora (1959). His Introduction to Plant Geography and Some Related Sciences (1960) became the standard text in the field and has been translated into a number of languages. All told, Polunin has authored or edited numerous scholarly books and is as well the author of more than 500 scientific articles.

Polunin provided inspiration through his many published works to generations of ecologists and other biological scientists. Equally important, he was always willing to offer knowledgeable, wise, and supportive counsel to generations of young scholars on a personal basis, sharing not only scientific information and imaginative insights but also his infectious enthusiasm.

Through his concerted efforts, numerous environmental conservationists, often from obscure institutions around the world, were afforded the opportunity to publish their findings in his journals and edited volumes. In short, by devoting his enormous energies to environmental conservation long before the need for such efforts became widely recognised, Polunin set the stage for, and continued to facilitate, an appreciation for the need for balancing human needs with those of the other living things on earth. In 1987 he was awarded the United Nations Environment Programme's International Sasakawa Environment Prize, the most prestigious environmental prize available. In 1991 he was placed on the United Nations Global 500 Roll of Honour.

Polunin was tall and thin and had boundless energy. He had impeccable manners, great warmth, empathy and dignity. His large office, with two huge desks, always looked like a disaster area, containing immense piles of paper that only he could deal with, but which somehow or other were immensely orderly.

In 1948, he married his second wife, Helen Eugenie Campbell; they moved to Geneva in 1959. Nicholas Polunin's vision, aspirations, and energies were shared by his wife, whose loving support and tireless assistance over the years he was always ready to acknowledge.