Obituary: Professor E. J. H. Corner

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The Independent Online
E. J. H. Corner was the last of the titans (H. J. Lam, C. G. G. J. van Steenis, R. E. Holttum, P. W. Richards) who shaped tropical botany in the decades after the Second World War. In a long and colourful career he made significant contributions to the study and interpretation of higher fungi and flowering plants and drew attention to their wonders before television, when the world was a much bigger place than today.

John Corner, son of a surgeon, was educated at Rugby (of which he later became a governor) and at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where his talents in mycology caught the attention of F. T. Brooks, then a university lecturer. A year after graduation he went out in 1929 as Assistant Director of the Singapore Botanic Garden, charged to investigate the diversity and classification of tropical fungi, then virtually unknown. These fruit briefly and profusely just twice a year.

Between times he developed an interest in trees, equally diverse in species. Dendrologists in that region work in unison with aboriginal tree climbers, not available in Singapore, so Corner for a few years used coconut-collecting monkeys instead. These were fickle and less productive and he had to give up when one bit him badly, but a legend had been born which earned him many a dinner in later years.

He made detailed studies in the swamp forests of Johor and a few forays further north, restricted because of the 1930s depression. This work culminated in Wayside Trees of Malaya, a famous, ground-breaking book interpreting trees to the layman and still today (in its third edition, 1988) as fresh and relevant as in 1940.

Corner and a few others spent most of the Japanese occupation under house arrest, but were allowed to curate the herbarium and garden and to continue their research. Several scientists in the Dutch East Indies fared likewise. Corner sailed very close to the Japanese wind and, unlike the others, left the Colonial Service in 1946. He then spent two years for Unesco at Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon to set up a research institute. The venture failed but triggered Brazil to create its own institute, thriving today.

Corner was then recruited to Cambridge, where Brooks had become professor. Corner spent the rest of his career as lecturer, as reader (1959) and finally with a personal chair (1966) in tropical botany. He took on the mantle of H. Gilbert Carter, to interpret the plant world to students, using the very rich University Botanic Garden, libraries and herbarium. He was a spellbinding lecturer and ran a memorable practical course in the garden. All botany students of whatever specialisation came to hear him. He made a lifelong impact and attracted to tropical botany some of today's leading proponents. His lectures showed originality, insight and iconoclasm, as did his writings.

Soon after arrival he published The Durian Theory (1949), the culmination of his researches into tropical trees. In this he brought together a series of their striking characters, including the big, smelly, spiny, eponymous fruit, and declared he had identified the ancestral flowering plant. The theory depended on his powers of rhetoric, and is not widely accepted. It achieved the very important purpose of drawing attention to the funniness of tropical plants and got people to "think big" (subject of another important paper of 1955).

Later books followed on The Life of Plants (1964) and The Natural History of Palms (1966), the former full of his originality but with dated aspects, the latter a fine broad-brush treatment flawed by many small errors. In retirement came the highly original Seeds of Dicotyledons (1976).

Corner led three Royal Society tropical expeditions, masterminded a fourth but failed to launch a fifth. His major taxonomic work of those years was the classification of Asian figs, but he fell out with his editor and this huge monograph of over 500 species has never been published.

John Corner could be charming, but could also be an irascible subordinate, colleague and mentor. There was his successful campaign, droll in retrospect, to prevent the erection of a grand entrance to the Cambridge Botanic Garden because it was to have incorporated a public convenience; a kind of fenland Clochemerle. There was also his scintillating appearance as expert witness in a court case on the issue of whether packet soup could be labelled mushroom (rather than toadstool) if it contained a pore rather than a gill fungus.

A steady trickle of students worked under him but he never built a research group. Despite his high status, the respect he commanded and his eloquence on the vital importance of tropical botany, the subject ceased instantly in Cambridge on his retirement, the rich resources no longer used.

At times he seemed to feel professionally threatened. For example, another retirement book, Freshwater Swamp Forests (1978), on the swamp forests of Johor, studiously ignored advances in tree science since his own researches in the 1930s.

For flowering plants he had left less in writing than his fellow titans so is less likely to have a lasting impact once the memory of his characteristic lectures has gone. However, throughout his professional life and especially in the 23 years after retirement right up to his death, he was also a prolific and highly original mycologist. He revolutionised the classification of the higher fungi and has left a more permanent imprint on this science, with several major books to his name (from A Monograph of Clavaria, 1950, to the seven-volume Adopolyporaceae, 1983-91) and big collections of tropical fungi still being worked on.

Corner's eminence as an original thinker was widely recognised by learned societies at home and abroad. Among many other awards he received the first Japanese International Prize for Biology (1985) and, earlier this year, he jointly won the first de Bary Medal of the International Mycological Association.

Edred John Henry Corner, botanist: born 12 January 1906; Assistant Director, Gardens Department, Straits Settlement 1929-45; Principal Field Scientic Officer, Latin America, Unesco 1947-48; Lecturer in Botany, Cambridge University 1949-59, Reader in Plant Taxonomy 1959-65, Professor of Tropical Botany 1966-73 (Emeritus); FRS 1955; Fellow, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge 1959-73; CBE 1972; married twice (one son, two daughters); died Cambridge 14 September 1996.