Professor John Proctor

Pioneer of tropical forest ecology
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The Independent Online

John Proctor, biologist: born Accrington, Lancashire 1 February 1944; Lecturer in Biology, Stirling University 1971-79, Senior Lecturer, then Reader 1979-96, Professor 1996-2005; married 1973 Sue Fogden (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 2006 Dorothy Taylor; died Blackburn, Lancashire 20 August 2006.

Over the last four decades, John Proctor established himself as an expert on the ecology and conservation of tropical forests and through his work helped secure a better future for these rapidly dwindling and productive ecosystems.

During a remarkable series of expeditions, to Central and South America, Indomalaya and Africa, he achieved a great deal in the way of data and scientific publications, despite a "shoestring" approach to research funding. Proctor was chief scientist in the field of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) Mulu expedition to Sarawak, Malaysia in 1977-78 and led the Forest Regeneration Group of the RGS to Maracá Island, Roraima, Brazil, in 1987-88. Between 1994 and 2006, he was the chief forest ecological adviser to Project Barito Ulu, a rainforest conservation project in central Indonesian Borneo. His many publications included the classic Mineral Nutrients in Tropical Forest and Savanna Ecosystems (1989).

Proctor was also the acknowledged authority on the vegetation of serpentinised areas. Serpentinites are magnesium-rich rocks which often have serpent-like colours and patterns and are toxic to many plants. The flora of serpentinised areas, such as parts of Shetland and the Lizard peninsula of Cornwall, is very specialised. Proctor's The Ecology of Areas with Serpentinized Rocks:a world view (1992, with B. Roberts) and four edited conference volumes (published between 1991 and 2003) are benchmark publications on this fascinating habitat.

Born in Accrington, Lancashire, in 1944, Proctor was educated at St Mary's College, Blackburn, and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, from where he graduated with a First in Botany in 1965, and was awarded his doctorate in 1968 and later, in recognition of his outstanding scientific activities, a DSc in 1994. After three one-year appointments at the beginning of his academic career, in 1979 Proctor became Lecturer in Biology at Stirling University, where he was appointed Professor in 1996 and remained until his retirement last year.

A council member of the British Ecological Society, 1982-85, Proctor served as secretary of the society's Tropical Group and was co-founder of its Scottish Tropical Group. He served on the editorial board of scientific journals including Plant Ecology and the journal of the Botanical Society of Scotland. He was President of the Botanical Society of Scotland, 1996-98, during which time he organised the most important botanical conference in Scotland in the last 40 years, published in a 500-page symposium volume.

John Proctor was a colourful, engaging, sometimes laconic, and often utterly hilarious, companion. His renditions of Winston Churchill's speeches were joyous to behold, especially when Proctor crumpled in laughter as he reached the climax of a rather long piece. By his own and frequent admission he was a quite dreadful lecturer, yet his students were captivated by his charisma and expert knowledge.

He adored vintage cars and motorbikes as long as they were British; a Black Shadow once adorned the hallway of his flat for months.

Proctor had contracted a tropical disease during an expedition, and this made his last years difficult. He died just a fortnight before two conference meetings were to be held in Edinburgh and Oxford in appreciation of his life's work. He was honoured that many of his ex-students were to lecture on research stimulated by him, with the results to be published next year in a Festschrift issue of the journal Plant Ecology.

Laszlo Nagy and Des Thompson