Obituary: Norman Hughes

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The Independent Online
Norman Francis Hughes, geologist: born 4 August 1918; Lecturer in Geology, Bedford College London 1947-52; Lecturer in Earth Sciences, Cambridge University 1952-85; Fellow, Queens' College, Cambridge 1963-94; married 1944 Pamela Le Boutillier; died Cambridge 18 September 1994.

NORMAN HUGHES was known internationally for his contribution in the field of palynology, the study of plant microfossils - mainly pollen and spores.

Hughes took the rare opportunity afforded by the Natural Sciences Tripos in Cambridge to become a geologist with a thorough biological training and wide interests in the life sciences. In his chosen field his rigorous work led to original methods and insights. Focusing on Mesozoic stratigraphy and the origins of flowering plants or angiosperms he developed methods for recording data and was early in employing the electron microscope, which yielded a new wealth of information beyond what could previously be seen.

The electron microscope's much greater magnification allowed a higher level of discrimination between different kinds of fossils, revealing small evolutionary changes which had previously been undetectable. Hughes argued the advantages of microfossils, which are sampled in their thousands, as compared with megafossils from which species are erected often from few or even only one specimen.

His 'biorecords' related individual characters to their stratigraphic context showing how much critical information is lost when only species descriptions are employed for purposes of comparison. Many traditional palaeontologists mistakenly perceived this as a threat to the time-hallowed Linnaean system of nomenclature in which so much had been invested. Hughes advocated his biorecords as a supplement rather than a replacement to this system, whose bands of classification are far less detailed. Regrettably his rigorous reasoning was too often ridiculed rather than countered. Hence he suffered, not by his own choosing, as an anti-establishment figure.

He argued against the common neontologists' practice of deducing evolutionary lineages from living material, on the basis that only the fossil record can provide reliable evidence. After authoring (and editing) more than 70 scientific papers and books, his last work, The Enigma of Angiosperm Origins (1994), throws down a methodological challenge to the biological community, with the possibility of no explanation in a single lineage. It remains to be seen how far this challenge will be met.

Hughes was born in 1918 and educated at King's College School, Wimbledon, and Queens' College, Cambridge, where he won the Wiltshire Prize on Part I of the Natural Sciences Tripos before serving in Field and Survey Regiments of the Royal Artillery in North Africa and Italy. He completed his Part II in 1947 with First Class Honours and won the Harkness Scholarship. His military service continued, however, till 1970 in the Royal Engineers Specialist Pool of Geologists of the Territorial Army, rising to the rank of Colonel and advising on terrains in many parts of the world.

On graduating he became lecturer in Geology at Bedford College, London, and in 1952 he moved to a University Lectureship in Cambridge, where he remained until his retirement in 1985. During this period, entirely on his own initiative and working with a succession of some 25 research students, he developed an internationally recognised school in palynology. He served as President of the International Commission for Palynology in the early Seventies and on many other international organisations, including two subcommissions of the Commission of Stratigraphy of the International Union of Geological Sciences, and he led projects in the International Geological Correlation Programme.

Hughes was one of the founding members of the Palaeontological Association and served it many years in various capacities. He was active in other bodies, notably the Geological Society of London, especially chairing the Stratigraphy Committee. He was awarded an ScD degree on his research in 1977.

Hughes was elected to a Fellowship at Queens', Cambridge, in 1963, and continued till his death serving in several college offices, not least as an expert on wine. As Steward he figured in the BBC television series on the college in 1984.

Not long before his death he and his wife Pamela, who survives him, celebrated their golden wedding. They had no children. Together they enjoyed the countryside, especially bird-watching, and he actively supported her career as an artist.

As a person Norman Hughes was heavyweight, not easily ignored. Perhaps in the eyes of some he could appear outrageously authoritarian. But in personal contacts he was exceptionally unselfish and generous with his time, especially to students. He belonged to a diminishing university tradition where teaching is primary, requiring hours of meticulous preparation of materials.

Conscientious in all he undertook and expressing himself with economy and precision, he was one of the rocks on which the excellence of a university system is built.

(Photograph omitted)