Professor Arthur Willis

Botanist and editor

Arthur John Willis, botanist: born Sherborne, Dorset 11 January 1922; Demonstrator, Lecturer and Reader, Department of Botany, Bristol University 1947-69; Professor of Botany, Sheffield University 1969-87 (Emeritus), Head of the Department of Botany and Honorary Director, NERC Unit of Comparative Plant Ecology 1969-87, Dean of the Faculty of Pure Science 1982-84; married 1948 Dorothy Bees (two daughters); died Sheffield 20 June 2006.

Arthur Willis belonged to that rare breed of botanists whose interests, research and general knowledge transcend traditional disciplines within the subject. He made substantial contributions to plant biochemistry, physiology, ecology, taxonomy and floras, palaeobotany and applied science, the last of these being the long-term effects of herbicides on vegetation. In all these facets of the subject, he was blessed with an astounding memory.

Born in Sherborne in Dorset, Willis was brought up on a farm, where his fascination with plants began. There he mastered the skills of milking, haymaking, and driving a horse and cart. His earliest encounter with nature was when his sister, Ruth, accidentally tipped his pram over and he landed, and nearly drowned, in the slurry heap. At Sexey's School in Bruton, Somerset, he excelled in all subjects, but his love of plants won through and became his passion. Indeed, his lifelong work with them was really an all-embracing hobby.

After graduating with a first class degree in Botany at Bristol University, Willis stayed on there to study for his doctorate with Ted Yemm; this work led to papers on the nitrogen metabolism of plants, which were published in prestigious journals such as Nature and The Biochemical Journal. The polymathic nature of his interests began to emerge: he produced a paper describing a new technique, still in use, for investigating plant fossils.

Later, he published work involving pollen analysis, reflecting his affinity for the history of vegetation. Nor were his interests restricted to flowering plants: he also investigated the physiology of mosses and liverworts, and the nature of a strange filamentous organism from Wookey Hole caves in Somerset. These studies on non- flowering organisms all resulted in further papers in Nature.

However, Arthur Willis will be best remembered as an ecologist. In 1959 he co-authored two seminal papers on the ecology of Braunton Burrows in Devon in the Journal of Ecology ("Braunton Burrows: the dune system and its vegetation", parts one and two). These set the scene for one of his enduring interests - coastal vegetation - culminating in his book with John Packham, Ecology of Dunes, Salt Marsh and Shingle, published in 1997, 10 years after his nominal retirement.

Much earlier, in 1973, he had radically updated Sir Arthur Tansley's Introduction to Plant Ecology (first published 50 years earlier as Practical Plant Ecology), essentially producing a new book. During his ecological fieldwork, Willis discovered a new plant to Britain, the rush Juncus subulatus, not surprisingly in a Somerset salt marsh; he also studied inter-generic hybrids in native grasses.

Willis's mammoth study on grass verges is worthy of inclusion in The Guinness Book of Records. Every year, for the past 48 years, he had recorded in detail the plant composition of herbicide-treated and control plots along the Roman Road, Akeman Street, near Bibury in Gloucestershire. This work represents the world's longest running dataset for land vegetation continuously involving a single individual using the same methodology.

In the early years, Ted Yemm was a willing helper; more recently, this role has been taken on by Nigel Dunnett in the Landscape Department at Sheffield. Interestingly, the data from the control plots in the context of global climate change have emerged as of more fundamental importance than those from the herbicide-treated plots. Their analysis, using modern computing techniques, is being continued, as is the collection of further data, though no longer by a person in jacket and tie no matter how hot the weather.

In retirement, Willis collaborated with Professor Mahmoud Zahran, of Mansoura University in Egypt, in the production of a landmark volume on the vegetation of arid and Mediterranean type regions, The Vegetation of Egypt (1992). Their second joint venture, Plant Life in the River Nile in Egypt, appeared in 2003 and a third volume, on the flora of the Red Sea region, was in preparation at the time of Willis's death.

All this work was conducted alongside his meticulous editing activities for the Bristol Naturalists' Society, reflecting his support for the amateur botanist; the Contemporary Biology Series of the publishers Edward Arnold; and, especially, The Journal of Ecology and its special adjunct The Biological Flora of the British Isles, which aims to produce in-depth, individual accounts of every plant in this part of the world. Very many people owe much to his assiduous editorial skills, and in this regard he was the Lynne Truss of the botanical world. Not only could he readily identify plants, even when he had difficulties with his eyesight, but, with equal facility, he could spot and eliminate the floating participle and the disjunctive gerund in the writings of others. He very much enjoyed the English language and readily solved cryptic crosswords.

Willis acted as a consultant to organisations as diverse as Unesco (in relation to the establishment of a Biosphere Reserve); the local children's hospital, for which he was often asked to identify poisonous or potentially poisonous plant parts ingested by children; and the police, whom he aided by recognising plant fragments discovered on murder victims.

By the time he became Head of the Botany Department in Sheffield in 1969, a post he held for 18 years, Willis had already gained considerable administrative experience in Bristol. In Sheffield he was patient and democratic in his approach, except on one memorable occasion when staff were debating whether the name of the department should be changed to "Plant Sciences", a move of which he did not approve. The matter went to a vote, which came out as 11:1 in favour of the change. His response from the chair was, "I think there's some confusion here." The change did not happen until after he retired.

Under his leadership, in 1986, in the first Research Assessment Exercise, Sheffield was the only botanical department in England and Wales to be awarded the top accolade of "Excellent in Research". It was inevitable, with his administrative acumen, that Willis would be invited to serve as Dean of the Faculty of Pure Science; this he did with distinction from 1982 to 1984.

Throughout his career he was also an examiner at home and abroad, notably in the West Indies, scrutinising the work of innumerable undergraduates and postgraduates, and, early on in Bristol, A-level students, of whom I was one. His boundless encouragement and help to others will be greatly missed, not only by his family and friends but also by plant enthusiasts, amateur and professional, worldwide.

David H. Lewis

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor