Professor Arthur Willis

Botanist and editor
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The Independent Online

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