Professor Garth Chapman

Zoologist and university administrator
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The Independent Online

Garth Chapman, zoologist: born Cambridge 8 October 1917; Assistant Lecturer in Zoology, Queen Mary College, London 1945-46, Lecturer 1946-58; Professor of Zoology, Queen Elizabeth College, London 1958-82 (Emeritus), Vice Principal 1974-80, Acting Principal 1977-78, Fellow 1984; Dean of the Faculty of Science, London University 1974-78; Fellow, King's College London 1985; married 1941 Margaret Wigley (one son, one daughter, and one son deceased); died Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk 1 November 2003.

Garth Chapman was an academic and scholar of considerable breadth, making innovative contributions to both research and teaching in biology, as well as to administration within London University and in a number of scientific societies.

In 1958, he was called to the Chair of Zoology in the newly established Queen Elizabeth College (QEC), London University. As head, his remit was to develop the small Biology Department into an academic unit that would offer the degree components of zoology and botany in a way which would permit combination with those of physiology, chemistry, biochemistry and, to a lesser extent, mathematics and physics as a series of joint degrees.

Thus, he established the first Biology Department in London University and one of the first in the UK, at a time when it was more fashionable to have separate botany and zoology departments, thereby anticipating the current trend for unified biological science. He tripled the staff numbers over a period of five to six years and, although Biology remained a relatively small department, its research output and teaching quality was high, with a number of its former students going on to hold high office in both industry and other universities.

Chapman's success was demonstrated when the university sought the closure of small departments as the result of financial pressures caused by the severe budget cuts of the Thatcher government. The subsequent analyses of both teaching and research showed the department to be one of the best biological departments in London.

Garth Chapman was born in 1917 and went on a major scholarship from the Royal Grammar School, Worcester, to read Natural Sciences at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. After graduating, he spent the Second World War years in the Telecommunications Research Establishment of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, an experience that stood him well during his early years in zoological research when he was able to exploit the technical expertise that he had acquired.

The post-war period found him lecturing in zoology at Queen Mary College, London University, where he commenced researches on a broad range of aspects of the comparative physiology of marine invertebrates. In particular, he pioneered the concept of a hydrostatic skeleton.

Most soft-bodied animals have neither a hard external nor an internal skeleton. Chapman showed that such animals relied upon maintaining a pressure on the internal fluids, which did not compress, so providing a firm structure to support muscle action. Such differential muscle action creates a hydraulic system permitting the maintenance of both body posture and movement. These research topics occupied him in many summer vacations in the laboratory of the marine station at Banyuls-sur-mer in the south-west of France whilst his family spent their time on the beach.

In part, his success at QEC was due to Chapman's nature. Although he gave the impression of being somewhat autocratic and austere to those who did not know him well, he was very much a gentle person. Widely read and a good and sympathetic listener, he would consider thoroughly both sides of an argument, and although he might take decisions that were unpalatable to some, they were invariably well thought through beforehand. These characteristics were immensely important in Chapman's later forays into administration as Vice-Principal (1974-80) and Acting Principal (1977-78) of QEC as well as Dean of Science in London University (1974-78).

He was involved with many committees of both university and scientific societies, including the Society for Experimental Biology, the Ray Society and the Company of Biologists. His keen interest in student welfare prompted his work with the British Council and the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas, together with committees in other London colleges.

Such administrative commitments reduced the time available for research and he did not return to the bench until a few years before retiring in 1982. After the merger of QEC, Chelsea College and King's College London in 1985, Chapman was made a Fellow of King's College.

On retirement, he moved to Clare in Suffolk where he was able to indulge his hobby of gardening and his interest in local history, both of the village and of his house where he, with his wife Margaret, warmly welcomed visits from friends and former colleagues. He continued his interests in the arts through wood-engraving and oil painting. More time was spent with his family and especially the grandchildren, though this was mingled with some sadness, since he had tragically lost his son Hugh a few years earlier.

Peter Gahan