Obituary: Professor N. B. Marshall

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The Independent Online
N. B. Marshall was a distinguished marine biologist who had an unusually gentle and kindly character. He was a world-wide authority on fishes of the deep sea and the way that they lived, and was exceptionally well-informed on all aspects of oceanography.

After taking a double First at Cambridge, in 1937, Marshall joined Sir Alister Hardy in the Department of Oceanography at University College Hull, where he worked on the reels of bolting silk collected by Hardy's ingenious plankton recorders, which trapped plankton in silk concealed inside artificial herrings dragged behind commercial ships; and looked particularly at the two indicator species of arrow worms.

This plankton work was interrupted by the Second World War, where Marshall was in army operations research. In 1944 he volunteered for "Operation Tabarin", a scheme to man bases in the Antarctic, and, 10 days after his marriage to Olga Stonehouse, set off for Labrador to collect 25 huskies. These went with Marshall to the Hope Bay base on the Weddell seacoast of Graham Land, where he fished to feed his colleagues, and in 1946 went south-west with three colleagues on a depot-laying sledging trip.

Marshall's work in the Antarctic was fittingly recognised not only by the award of a Polar Medal, in 1953, but also in 1966 by the Royal Geological Society's naming Marshall Peak after him. Marshall characteristically remarked that, while he had a mountain named after him, his colleagues had merely been given glaciers, which would be little more than cubes of ice in a Martini in years to come.

On returning to Britain from the Antarctic in 1946, Marshall remained for a while at Hull, but soon abandoned plankton work for his real love, fish, by joining the British Museum (Natural History) in Cromwell Road, London. Here he stayed for 15 years, writing numerous papers and some influential books on marine fishes, based on the museum collections and on his wide cruise experience, among them Aspects of Deep Sea Biology (1954), The Life of Fishes (1965) and Explorations in the Life of Fishes (1970). These were beautifully illustrated by his wife Olga, whose paintings of the bizarre silvery hatchet fishes were strikingly life-like.

His writings and the influence he had on the numerous workers he attracted to the BM (NH), as it was then known, gave him an unusually respected position in marine biology, recognised in 1971 by the award of the Rosenstiel Gold Medal for distinguished services to oceanography.

Marshall's work on marine fishes, especially upon those of the deep sea, was far from the typical work of a museum taxonomist. He was interested in fishes as functional entities, not as counters in cladistic schemes (he poked gentle fun at cladists, the exponents of a particular system of relating animals), so he looked, for example, at the relationships of the swimbladder organ in fish with the depths at which the fish would live, or the simplicity of structure of the most abundant and widespread fishes of all, the different Cycothone species. In his monograph on the rat tails or macrourid fishes, there is much functional anatomy as well as sound taxonomy.

In 1972, Marshall was tempted away from his position at the museum, to take the Chair of Zoology at Queen Mary College, London University, where he remained until he retired in 1977. Retirement in Saffron Walden was busy, not only with further books, on fish biology, and on simplicity in biology, but also with golf, music, and entertaining numerous visitors. I collaborated with him on one of these books, and it was always a great pleasure to receive his letters commenting wryly and acutely on new work on fishes.

Freddy Marshall was in person of middle height, with a somewhat cherubic appearance, rather quiet for most of the time, with twinkling eyes and a smile always about to broaden on his face. On first acquaintance, his interests outside marine biology were far from obvious, and he never paraded his exceptionally wide reading in literature and philosophy. He was fortunate in having received what a scientist perhaps prizes most: the respect and admiration of his colleagues in his field. More than this, he gained the affection of all who knew him. Mention of his name amongst biologists anywhere in the world was sure to raise a reminiscent smile.

Quentin Bone

Norman Bertram Marshall, marine biologist: born Little Shelford, Cambridgeshire 5 February 1915; plankton biologist, Department of Oceanography, University College Hull 1937-41; Assistant Keeper (2nd class), Marine Fishes, British Museum (National History) 1947, Senior Scientific Officer 1947-54, Principal Scientific Officer 1954-62, Senior Principal Scientific Officer 1962-72; FRS 1970; Professor of Zoology and Comparative Physiology, Queen Mary College, London University 1972-77 (Emeritus); married 1944 Olga Stonehouse (one son, three daughters); died Great Chesterford, Essex 13 February 1996.