Professor J. G. Vaughan

Expert on seed structure and composition
Click to follow
The Independent Online

J. G. Vaughan was a botanist who worked at the interface of plants and food. An expert on the structure and composition of seeds, he pioneered the use of seed chemistry as a tool for classifying plants. After his retirement, he co- authored two widely praised and beautifully illustrated books. The first of these, published in 1997, was The New Oxford Book of Food Plants by Vaughan and Catherine Geissler, his nutritionist colleague at King's College London. This became an immediate success, establishing itself as a major work in the field, and the authors were working on a new edition. This book was followed in 2003 by another success, The Oxford Book of Health Foods, co-authored with Pat Judd.

Born in Merthyr Tydfil in 1926 (and very proud of his Welsh heritage), John Griffith Vaughan attended Cyfarthfa Park Grammar School, from which he went to Manchester University to study Botany. Following graduation, he spent a short time as a schoolteacher and then moved into higher education as lecturer in botany at the then Chelsea Polytechnic which was associated with London University. In 1958 he was appointed as lecturer in the Department of Biology at Queen Elizabeth College, a college of the university which was beginning its expansion into the teaching of degrees that included botany as an option. He initiated the degree courses in botany and during the growth of the department he remained for several years as the senior botanist, eventually becoming Reader.

His early research was on the cellular structure of stem apices, but after his appointment at Queen Elizabeth College he established research programmes in two main areas - chemotaxonomy of plants (the use of the chemicals they contain as an aid in their classification) and seed structure and composition. The two were in fact closely related as Vaughan chose the analysis of seed proteins as a taxonomic tool. Among the first to use the newly developing electrophoretic methods for the separation and partial characterisation of proteins, he applied this technique to detailed studies of the taxonomic relationships among several Brassica species, for example mustard, rapeseed and cabbage types, based on the identification of the different storage and other proteins of their seeds.

He built up a team of research students and colleagues investigating the taxonomy of a range of species, mostly by the use of chemical methods, whose research was published in a large collection of scientific papers. Because of his reputation in the field, he was commissioned to act as senior editor of several books including Seed Proteins (1983) and The Biology and Chemistry of the Cruciferae (1976).

At the time that the chemotaxonomic programme began he also initiated an ambitious project on the anatomy of oilseeds, both those of major commercial importance in the world oilseed economy and the minor species that may have little impact internationally but are of great local importance. This work culminated in the publication in 1970 of The Structure and Utilization of Oil Seeds, which rapidly became the standard work on the subject and remains as the major reference on oilseed structure. For this substantial body of research and scholarship he was awarded the DSc degree by Manchester University.

Because of his expertise as a plant anatomist, he was frequently consulted by seed millers and the food industry to identify plant parts in food and animal feed. His courses on the microscopic identification of the ingredients of food and feed were highly valued by the appropriate industries and by those who attended them. His achievements in this area and his classic contributions to seed anatomy were recognised by his appointment in 1986 as Professor of Food Microscopy at Queen Elizabeth College (which became part of King's College London). In the 1990s he further expanded his interests in microscopy as applied in the study of foods and participated in research on wheat-grain components and bread doughs.

After his retirement from King's College in 1991, Vaughan carried out much of the research for his last two books at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, close to his home in Petersham. Kew's gardens provided some of the plants painted specially for The New Oxford Book of Food Plants and its library many of the illustrations for The Oxford Book of Health Foods.

John Vaughan was an excellent teacher of botany, especially of plant anatomy. He was a notably kind, friendly and compassionate man. His influence remains in the many undergraduate and graduate students who have gone on to distinguished careers in science and education.

Michael Black and Mark Nesbitt