Obituary: Professor Richard Purchon

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The Independent Online
Richard Dennison Purchon, zoologist, born 19 March 1916, lecturer in zoology University of Wales 1945-50, Raffles Professor of Zoology University of Malaya 1950-60, Professor of Zoology University of Ghana 1961-62, Head of Department of Botany and Zoology Chelsea College of Science and Technology 1962-66, Professor of Zoology 1966-81, Emeritus Professor of Zoology London University 1981-92, married 1940 Diana Foss (two sons, two daughters), died 17 October 1992.

FOLLOWING 10 years in Singapore as the first Raffles Professor of Zoology in the University of Malaya and a short spell in the University of Ghana, Richard Purchon became the first and only Professor of Zoology during the 1960s in the former Chelsea College, London University.

He was a distinguished marine biologist with a fondness for molluscs - an extraordinarily diverse and, as shellfish, important group of invertebrate animals. He became a recognised authority on bivalves in particular but to the zoological community at large he is highly regarded for the first edition of his book The Biology of the Mollusca (1968), in which he offered an extremely valuable, accurate and readable account of form, function and adaptive radiation within this complex phylum.

Less well known is an account of the life-history of the field cricket (Discovery, 1945), remarkable for the fact that it was based on Purchon's studies in Oflag VII B at Eichstattin, Bavaria. A lieutenant in the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, he was captured in June 1940 along with others in the 'Davis Rifles' and forced to spend five years as a prisoner of war. This was not an idle chapter in his life, however. Apart from the cricket, he investigated the nesting activities of swallows (1948), translated extensively from German texts, and taught and examined formal classes in biology with materials arranged through the Red Cross and London University.

Purchon's other valuable contribution was in the role of a teacher. He believed in professorial contact with undergraduates from their first year. His concise but informative laboratory and field schedules are classics of their kind, and those developed overseas formed the basis of his Practical Animal Biology for the Tropics (1963). He realised the value of tropical material, pointing up the absurdity of importing standard European 'Type-Species', then a not infrequent practice, for exploring animal biology. To London he brought a welcome tropical dimension to malacology and marine studies. Many generations of undergraduates will recall 'Purchon's stomachs' Types I to V, as he unravelled the mysteries of the digestive tracts of bivalves. Up to retirement he personally led field courses at the University Marine Biological Station on the Isle of Cumbrae.

Always supportive of his postgraduates and younger colleagues, he bore departmental administration with fortitude and contributed much time and energy to chairmanship of the university's Board of Study in Zoology and the Zoological Secretaryship of the Linnean Society, 1970-73. He was President of the Malacological Society, 1969-71.

Well in advance of Swinnerton-Dyer's reorganisation of London University, Purchon was aware that some drastic rationalisation of science teaching was required. Presiding over a department which initiated the first UK graduate training programme in Applied Hydrobiology, he foresaw the scope for further developments of ecological activities at Chelsea, some of which, since the amalgamation of colleges, have contributed to the strong environmental theme in the present Division of Life Sciences at King's College. Dick Purchon retired in 1981 but remained active publishing as recently as 1990 from his home in Otford, Kent.