Obituary: Alan Charig

Jurassic Park is the most vivid and recent result of the modern fascination with dinosaurs. But it was the work of such scientists as Alan Charig in the 1970s that started to bring these ancient reptiles out of the laboratory and into wider public awareness, with the help of television and of a new generation of illustrators with talent and imagination.

In 1974, Charig wrote and presented a 10-part BBC television series on the study of vertebrate fossils, Before the Ark, and wrote an accompanying book. His second semi-popular book, A New Look at Dinosaurs (1979), was an even greater success and was translated into several languages.

Born in 1927, Alan Charig was educated at Haberdashers' Aske's School in Hampstead and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In the midst of his undergraduate study, he was called up to do National Service in the Royal Armoured Corps. After learning to drive a tank, he volunteered to learn Russian, and became an interpreter in the British Army of Occupation in Germany.

After returning to Cambridge and completing his Natural Sciences degree, he became one of the first research students of Rex Parrington FRS at Cambridge. Parrington had collected fossil reptiles in East Africa in the 1930s, and Charig was given the task of studying some early ancestors of the dinosaurs.

When he joined the staff of what is now the Natural History Museum in 1957, he was at first given a post in invertebrate fossils and wrote a paper on a fossil mollusc from Fiji, but he was later (in 1961) transferred to the Department of Vertebrate Palaeontology when a post became vacant there.

This position suited his interest and character very well. His research duties allowed him to study the museum's historic collection of dinosaur fossils. As a zoologist rather than a geologist, he tried to interpret the structural differences between the major groups of dinosaur in functional terms. His interpretation of their differing solutions to the problems of efficiently carrying and moving their great weight remains a major contribution to this field. He was a meticulous worker; his research papers were always clearly expressed, with the structure of argument plainly laid out, and facts clearly distinguished from interpretation.

But his work on dinosaurs at the museum also brought him into contact with the public, which gave him the opportunity to use his ability to explain science clearly in simple terms. He was an excellent and entertaining lecturer, in demand at schools and undergraduate societies, and he gave freely of his time and energy. He was gregarious and garrulous, a strong supporter of such scientific dining groups as the Tetrapods Club, with a fund of stories.

Alan Charig relished controversy. He enjoyed disentangling the various components of a scientific theory, and argued his case robustly but always fairly. This, was most clearly seen in the 1980s, when he sprang to the defence of one of the museum's most treasured fossils - the beautiful skeleton of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx, complete with clear impressions of feathers and wings. A new theory of the origin of life, propounded by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, required that this fossil had to be a forgery. Charig and his colleagues comprehensively demolished this suggestion - though he strongly resented the waste of scholarly time involved in this debate, which gained much media attention.

He was not one of those museum workers who merely study the fossils that others have laboriously collected in the field. He was a member of the four-month-long expedition with members of London University that went to Zambia and Tanzania in 1963 and which collected over five tons of material. He also collected in Lesotho in 1966-67 (when the expedition found the oldest articulated skeleton of a mammal), in Queensland (1978), and China (1982), and visited many fossil sites in Argentina in 1995.

Though Charig retired in 1987, he continued to carry out research at the museum, especially on the very unusual dinosaur Baryonyx, which had been discovered in a brick-pit in Surrey by an amateur collector in 1983. This research, carried out jointly with his successor, Angela Milner, was published this summer. It is a fitting memorial to a man who gave generously of his abilities, both within the world of science and in explaining his subject to a wider audience.

Barry Cox

Alan Jack Charig, palaeontologist: born London I July 1927; Scientific Officer, Invertebrate Palaeontology, British Museum (Natural History) 1957-61, Curator of Fossil Amphibians, Reptiles and Birds 1961-87, Principal Scientific Officer 1964-87; married 1955 Marianne Jacoby (died 1987; two sons, one daughter); died London 15 July 1997.

Charig: relished controversy

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week