Obituary: Professor E. J. H. Corner

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The Independent Online
E. J. H. Corner's contributions to our understanding of flowering plants may have been less focused than for fungi but they surely are as important, writes David G. Frodin [further to the obituary by Professor T.C. Whitmore, 21 September].

His "durian theory" (which was translated into French in the 1960s) may have relied strongly on rhetoric, but this was as much asset as liability. It was posited to provoke, to express a point of view at a time when our understanding of the tropical forest was little more than rudimentary. It was not necessarily to be taken at face value.

With respect to "thinking big", in addition to his work on the hundreds of species of figs, Corner more than once called attention to other great, easily recognised but often little- studied and imperfectly understood plant groups, among them groundsels, acacias, solanums, spurges and begonias. He early called attention to the importance of studying tree form, by conventional botanists much neglected but for which a set of parameters began to take shape, largely in continental western Europe, at the end of the 1960s.

It was all part of a common understanding, rooted in earlier work by Arthur H. Church at Oxford, which informed his approach to plants and fungi. He may not have known, but what came to be dubbed "Corner's Rules" garnered support from work in the 1980s by the American ecologist Peter S. White. Further exploration of his ideas should be part of the research programme of what now is called biomimetics (the study of the architecture of organisms in relation to internal and external physical forces).

He also contributed to the epistemology of taxonomy; in comments about the pitfalls of classificatory "grades" (homoplasies) he was at one with some of the basic tenets of Henningian phylogenetic (cladistic) systematics; similarly, he argued that the lack of fossils should not be an obstacle to a phylogenetically based classification.

Corner's long retirement indeed was productive, but conducted mostly from his home in Great Shelford, doubled in size in the 1970s with a corresponding increase to an already large garden.

On university matters he was often conservative, perhaps sometimes too much so. That he was strongly opposed to the introduction of a sociology programme in the late 1960s might be seen as good; but he was also opposed to co-education in the colleges and accordingly resigned his fellowship in Sidney Sussex in the early 1970s over their admission of women.

What he may have made of more recent developments such as Management Studies perhaps should remain unsaid. It should, however, remain an eternal shame that tropical botany was discontinued by Downing Street on his departure; the department of what is now, fashionably, Plant Sciences ever since has been the poorer.

Finally, no account of John Corner would be complete without mention of his devoted second wife Helga, who gave him unstinting support and companionship until some three years before his death when her spirit was called from this world.

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