Peter James: Lichenologist who was one of the first to establish the study of these primitive plants as a scientific speciality

 

To anyone interested in wild plants the name of Peter James and the study of lichens are virtually synonymous. When he began his career, very few botanists specialised in lichens, primitive plants which combine fungi with algae. Today lichenology is a well-established scientific discipline in Britain, with, its own Society, journal, regular field meetings and a notably dedicated band of followers.

Despite their difficulty lichens are well recorded – Britain has as rich a lichen flora as anywhere in Europe – and the importance of lichens as environmental indicators, especially for atmospheric pollution, is well known. Many such advances can be traced back to when James started work in the Natural History Museum in 1955.

Lichens were his hobby as well as his job. James spanned the different worlds of amateur and professional lichenology and was never happier than on an excursion with fellow enthusiasts. It is said that there was nowhere he had not been and no specimen he could not identify. He had a wizard's eye for finding obscure or minute species that others had missed. Indeed James identified so many parcels of specimens that at times he felt he was becoming a machine for naming lichens.

But along with a taxonomist's eye and a phenomenal memory he was unfailingly patient and generous with his time, and a gifted teacher. All the great lichenologists of that generation, such as Oliver Gilbert, David Hawksworth, Mark Seaward and Brian Fox, acknowledge the his central role in encouraging and facilitating the growing science of lichenology.

Peter (never "Pete") James was tall and slim, with a courteous and slightly formal demeanour. In later life he grew a neatly cropped beard. A lifelong bachelor, he was firmly set in his likes and dislikes. He was a good cook and served immaculately presented dinners in his flat at Baron's Court lined with books and classical music records. He loved cacti, though most of his collection of 600 species had to be stored at his sister's house in the Midlands. On the other hand he never learned to drive or to work a computer, and refused to use a mobile phone. Most of his voluminous correspondence was handwritten.

In the field he was a fearless explorer of the wet, rocky places where many lichens are found. A friend in Tasmania found him an inspiration but hopelessly clumsy in the bush. "You had to watch him near precipices. On one occasion he ignored my warnings and was hammering fiercely at a rock outcrop standing in front of a wombat's burrow. Of course the wombat duly returned – a 10-gallon keg's worth of muscle travelling at speed – and with an 'Oh, my gosh,' Peter, hammer, chisel and specimens all parted company."

Peter James grew up in Sutton, then a rural suburb of Birmingham, the son of a local headmaster. Keen on wildlife from boyhood, he read botany at Liverpool University, a course then known for its thorough grounding in the "lower plants". Emerging with a first class degree he enrolled for a PhD, choosing as his subject the succession of lichens on twigs, having been inspired by the lush lichens he saw on a field trip to Wales.

For a variety of reasons he never completed his doctorate but took up a summer vacation studentship at the Natural History Museum. There he made his mark; when a full-time post for a lichen specialist was advertised he was selected and started work the next day. He remained at the Museum until his retirement in 1990, latterly as Deputy Keeper of botany.

James was one of the founders of the British Lichen Society in 1958 and became the first editor of its prestigious journal, The Lichenologist, a role he continued in until 1977. He also played a key part in the development of Britain's published lichen flora. He was a leading light on the Society's field trips which ranged over the whole of Britain and amounted to a systematic exploration of our lichens.

Many new species were discovered and a camaraderie was forged, camping out in remote, mountainous places and islands – a sport described as "adventure lichenology" by Oliver Gilbert. Among the places James surveyed more than once was Stonehenge, for which he produced separate species lists for each of the 82 stones that make up the monument – including the bright-yellow lichen Candalariella which flourished wherever English Heritage had tried to remove paint graffiti.

His interests extended overseas to temperate South America as well as Australia, New Zealand and the Atlantic islands. He was a founder member, acting treasurer and first president of the International Association for Lichenology and co-ordinated its first field meeting in the Austrian Alps in 1971. Among other activities of a busy professional life were botanical congresses, service to various bodies from the Field Studies Council to British Petroleum, and acting as external examiner for doctorates at home and overseas. After his retirement he became a founder member of the conservation charity Plantlife, which he served as vice-chairman.

In 1992 James was awarded the Acharius Medal for lifetime achievements in lichenology. The citation described him as "a gentleman of lichenology" – which sums him up perfectly. µ PETER MARREN

Peter Wilfrid James, botanist and lichenologist: born Sutton Coldfield 28 April 1930; died Birmingham 13 February 2014.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral