Obituary: Frank White
Tuesday 18 October 1994
FRANK WHITE was the foremost student of African flora and vegetation, and curator for nearly 30 years of both herbaria at Oxford University.
The son of a flour miller's clerk in Sunderland, White went to Bede Collegiate School, obtaining a scholarship which took him to St John's College, Cambridge, in 1945, where his tutor was the Arctic scientist Dr Colin Bertram. Because of this - and curiously for one who was to devote his life to tropical botany - White's first expedition was to Arctic Lapland which later led to a notable publication in the Journal of Ecology in 1951.
He obtained Firsts in Parts I and II of the Natural Science Tripos and was awarded the Frank Smart Prize in Botany. In 1948, he was appointed Demonstrator in Forest Botany at the Forestry Department in Oxford, where he devoted himself to sorting out the taxonomic problems of the African forest flora, particularly the ebonies (Ebenaceae) and the mahogany family (Meliaceae).
His spare time White devoted to honing his skills as a wonderful raconteur and gustateur. The cricket matches he organised had the custom of a pint of ale being taken out to the batsman every time a boundary was hit. This rule had a great levelling effect and the best batsmen were soon reduced to the general level of skill. This side of his nature was increasingly hidden to those who knew him only during the last 15 years of his life as clouds of his final illnesses began to envelop him.
White believed in taking his studies to the living plant and not being confined to pressed and dried specimens in the herbarium. This led to extensive travels around Africa and he strove not to become too involved with flora outside Africa so as not to 'dilute his experience', as he put it. However, at length he was persuaded to Central America by his colleague Dr Terry Pennington, and shortly before his death he had widened his remit still further to include the ebonies of China, New Caledonia and elsewhere.
By 1971 White was established as the Curator of the Oxford University herbaria, the Forest Herbarium and the Fielding-Druce. These herbaria he turned into engines of his own research and while some curatorial duties were neglected in the process, the effect on his own productivity was immense. The late 1960s were anni mirabiles for monographs and flora accounts. It is a measure of the quantity of work that he took on during this period that so much remained unfinished at the time of his death. In the 1970s he devoted his theoretical thinking to biogeography (the scientific study of the distribution of organisms) or, as he called it, 'chorology'. The word chorology he used advisedly because it signified his attachment to a Darwinian approach to this subject in which the dispersal of organisms is of great importance. His views are clearly set out in his masterly article 'The Taxonomic and Ecological Basis of Chorology', published in 1971.
Genius in biology involves seeing the simplifying generalisations thrown up both because of and in spite of a mass of natural variation. In both his coining of the word 'ochlospecies' in 1962 and his bold classification of the vegetation of Africa White achieved this. The ochlospecies (a very variable taxon without correlation in characters and therefore defying detailed classification) presents a challenge to the idea that natural variation tends to be all hierarchical. His vegetation map of Africa was conceived in the buoyant atmosphere of Unesco in the late 1950s, but not completed and published until 1983 by Unesco, which - like Africa itself - had grown very different.
Frank White was a trenchant supporter of the importance of fieldwork to underpin biological ideas. His views are set out in the memorial volume to the great Swedish biologist Olov Hedburg, explorer of the Mountains of the Moon in East Africa. He ends his contribution by appealing for a second revolution in botany, 'monographic in outlook and firmly rooted in field studies'. All his research students (including the present Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Ghillean Prance) had White's guidance during their formative trips into the field. He believed in arriving at theoretical generalisations through meticulous documentation of the empirical facts, an approach that contrasted strongly with the organism-free theoretical biology which burgeoned in Oxford during the 1970s and 1980s.
During the 1980s White's own research turned increasingly to plant-animal relationships, with his students Helen Hopkins (bat pollination), Camilla Huxley (ant- plant symbiosis) and Caroline Pannell (animal dispersal of fruits). These studies all sink their roots into the fertile earth of scientific natural history. It is to be regretted that Frank White rarely published in the more widely read scientific journals, but through those he taught and influenced his spirit continues.
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