P. D. Orton

Authority on British fungi
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The Independent Online

P.D. Orton was an expert on mushrooms and toadstools, and one of the few living naturalists who could identify nearly all of the 2,000-plus British species in the field. He had a naturally retentive memory and knew not only the field characters but much of the fine microscopic detail of fungi by heart. Over a lifetime he also acquired a unique knowledge of the ecology of fungi, especially of woodland species.

Peter Darbishire Orton, schoolteacher and mycologist: born Plymouth 28 January 1916; staff, Epsom College 1949-55, Rannoch School 1961-81; died Crewkerne, Somerset c7 April 2005.

P.D. Orton was an expert on mushrooms and toadstools, and one of the few living naturalists who could identify nearly all of the 2,000-plus British species in the field. He had a naturally retentive memory and knew not only the field characters but much of the fine microscopic detail of fungi by heart. Over a lifetime he also acquired a unique knowledge of the ecology of fungi, especially of woodland species.

He was the greatest British authority on the large and difficult genus Cortinarius, and published a series of keys to these often large and brightly coloured toadstools to make them more accessible to other mycologists. From his years spent teaching at Rannoch School in the Scottish Highlands he also became an authority on the fungi of native pinewoods, work which helped to draw attention to the special status of these ancient forests.

Orton was born in 1916 in Plymouth, where his father, James Herbert Orton, later Professor of Zoology at Liverpool University, worked as a marine scientist. An only child of a broken marriage, he was sent to Oundle School in Northamptonshire in 1929 where he came under the kindly eye of the headmaster, Kenneth Fisher, a keen ornithologist and musician. From an early age Orton had become fascinated by natural history, especially insects, plants and fungi, and at school also became a proficient pianist and organist.

He won a place at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences, Music and History, passing with a general degree in 1937. He later studied at the Royal College of Music. Arriving late and flustered for his examination at the top of a flight of stairs he tripped and fell straight into the arms of his examiner - who turned out to be Ralph Vaughan Williams.

From 1940 to 1946 Orton served in the Royal Artillery, where his quick mathematical mind was used to help direct radar-guided anti-aircraft guns in London. After completing his studies at the Royal College, he secured a post at Epsom College, where he taught music. He spent much of his spare time on his various hobbies. He was "mad keen" on steam engines and haunted the sheds where they were kept, noting down their serial numbers. He was also fascinated by beetles, and over a lifetime amassed a large collection of mounted specimens which he left to the Royal Scottish Museum.

His principal interest was in mushrooms and toadstools. He became close friends with the then leading authority, A.A. Pearson, who, like Orton, was a keen musician, in his case a singer of madrigals and Austrian Lieder. Orton acquired his first microscope and joined the British Mycological Society. He was later made an honorary associate of the society but, being averse to large groups, he rarely attended its meetings and forays.

In 1955 he received a Nuffield Foundation grant to work with R.W.G. Dennis at Kew and F.B. Hora at Reading University on a thoroughly revised checklist of British agarics and boletes. Orton's main contribution was a 300-page "Notes on Genera and Species", which included scores of descriptions of new species, complete with line drawings. At this time he also received an MSc from the university for his work on fungi.

Many of Orton's species have stood the test of time, for example the Splendid Waxcap, Hygrocybe splendidissima, now a familiar "indicator species" of old pasture. However, he took a narrow view of species that some feel under-rated their natural variability. Hence some of his names have since been swallowed up in later revisions. Nevertheless the New Check List of British Agarics and Boleti, published in 1960, remained the standard work on the systematics of British mushrooms and toadstools for nearly half a century. A revised checklist, soon to be published at Kew, is only now in preparation.

In 1960 Orton took up a new post at Rannoch School in Perthshire, where he at first taught biology, and later English and music. He ran a school field club, which raided the surrounding woods and moors for beetles and bugs, and gave annual piano recitals, as well as playing at services and events. Loath to leave his beloved Scotland after his retirement in 1981, Orton rented a house in Nethybridge, near Grantown-on-Spey, for several years. In 1986 he returned south to Crewkerne, Somerset, becoming a first-time house buyer at the age of 70.

During his Scottish years, Orton published studies of Scottish mushrooms and toadstools, often with his friend Professor Roy Watling of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. They included volumes on Coprinus (1979, with Watling), Pluteus and Volvariella (1986), and Gymnopilus (1993) for the British Fungus Flora series. He also published a list of toadstools which he considered to be indicators of natural pine woodland. His last mycological paper, "New and Interesting Agarics from Abernethy Forest, Scotland", describing three new species of fungi, was published in 1999 in the Kew Bulletin.

Peter Orton was by nature something of a loner. He had suffered from measles as a teenager which left him partially deaf and with poor eyesight. He had decided views on most subjects that interested him. Although he did not suffer fools, he was encouraging and helpful to those who showed a clear interest in fungi. As a field mycologist, he was second to none: there were few who could match his eye for the fine detail that separates one small brown fungus from another.

A paper reflecting his lifelong study of the difficult sub-genus Telamonia was in an advanced state at his death, and it is hoped that it will be published.

Peter Marren

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