Obituary: Brian Styles

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The Independent Online
Brian Thomas Styles, botanist and taxonomist: born Chedworth, Gloucestershire 26 September 1934; married 1966 Cynthia Large (one son); died Oxford 27 June 1993.

AT A TIME of unprecedented concern and debate about the importance and future of tropical forests, the loss of such a valued and experienced tropical botanist as Brian Styles will be acutely felt. As a plant taxonomist, Styles devoted much of his career to unravelling the complexities of the diverse plant life of the tropics.

Neither Brian Styles's childhood in Gloucestershire, where he attended the local grammar school in Northleach, nor his student years at Oxford, where he read botany at Wadham College and successfully submitted a doctoral thesis on Polygonum, a genus of north temperate herbs, indicated a career in tropical forest botany. However, even in 1959 the British flora was already well described, offering limited scope for taxonomists. Styles was offered a research assistantship at Oxford to work on the preparation of botanical monographs of commercially important tropical forest species. What was envisaged as a three-year project was extended repeatedly and Styles stayed in Oxford for the next 33 years, becoming a senior research officer at what was then the Commonwealth Forestry Institute (now the Oxford Forestry Institute, part of the Department of Plant Sciences of Oxford University).

The Overseas Development Administration (and its predecessors), which funded Styles's work throughout that period, is to be commended for recognising the fundamental need for taxonomic support to tropical forestry. By studying the taxonomy of some of the most important and widely used tropical trees - the mahogany family, the pines of Mexico and Central America, and tree legumes - Styles laid sound foundations for wise use of these species in tropical forestry.

Styles worked initially on the mahoganies (Meliaceae) in Africa and the Americas, producing definitive monographs and contributions to regional and national floras. Work on the Meliaceae continued, but it was the pines of Mexico and Central America that became his main interest from 1970. Brian started his work on pines with the little-known taxa in Central America, publishing a series of scientific papers on these species, and continuing north to Mexico where the genus is at its most diverse. He became the leading world authority on the group and at the time of his death was nearing the completion of a definitive monograph of the pines.

Many taxonomists become progressively more productive with age; Styles's sudden and premature death at the age of 58 cheated him and us of that time and his magnum opus. It will be a tragic loss to taxonomy and forestry if this great work is not published; Styles's colleagues are now considering how the monograph can be completed. His scientific contribution and published work went far beyond the bounds of strict taxonomy to include cytology, flowering biology, ecology, conservation and plant uses. In all of this Brian was ably assisted by his wife, Cynthia, who undertook much of his secretarial work.

Although rooted in Oxford, Brian Styles worked extensively in both Africa and Latin America. He experienced his first taste of the tropics in Uganda in 1962. In recent years he returned to Africa, but it was to Mexico and Central America that Styles went almost annually from 1970 until his last trip last year. His enthusiasm for field work was always 'as keen as mustard' and it is to his credit that he pursued the 'nuts and bolts' of field collecting long after many of his contemporaries had settled for more sedentary lives, in their ivory towers or on the conference or consultancy circuits. Exploration and collection of pines took him to all corners of Mexico and Central America, but he particularly enjoyed the colour and vivacity of Guatemala and southern Mexico. Even in the most rigorous conditions, he remained jovial, cheerful and uncomplaining.

As a taxonomist concerned with the nomenclature of plants and with botanical Latin, it is perhaps no surprise that Styles was also an accomplished linguist, fluent in Spanish, German, and French, and with sound knowledge of Swahili, Russian and Latin. Alongside his contribution to the science of taxonomy, he will be particularly remembered by all those who benefited from his teaching, supervision and advice. He was extremely active in teaching at the university, particularly as a supervisor of postgraduate students, and many of his students became lifelong friends.

His commitment to education also extended to the work of the Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations where he served as an examiner, and later senior examiner and awarder (the most senior form of examining post) for O and Alevel Biology. He was appointed as a delegate in 1974, was actively involved in A level Biology syllabus development, and sat on the delegacy's most senior committee from 1986 until 1992. It is perhaps typical of Styles that, outside the delegacy, this commitment and lengthy service to school education went largely unseen and unrecognised.

Brian Styles often described himself as a 'lowly botanist' and was always flattered by the widespread respect that he received. He was greatly cheered by the recent renewed interest in and funding for taxonomy, as tropical biodiversity rose up the political and scientific agenda. Now that their value is more fully appreciated, let us hope that there will be enough lowly botanists to continue Brian's work.

(Photograph omitted)

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