Obituary: Professor William Swinton
Tuesday 28 June 1994
WILLIAM SWINTON was largely responsible for the popularisation of dinosaurs in Britain in the 20th century. He divided his long career in museums into two parts, radically different but equally successful. He spent the first part in England as a geological curator specialising in dinosaurs, where his skills in communicating his enthusiasm for his subject to the general public brought him greater delight and renown than did the routine museum tasks of exhibitions, curation, fieldwork and research. His latter years were spent in Canada as a leading museum administrator, in which capacity he displayed remarkable organisational abilities.
Swinton was born at Kirkcaldy, Fife, in 1900, and was educated at Morgan Academy, Dundee, Whitehill School, Glasgow, Trinity College, Glenalmond, and Glasgow University. At Glasgow he was Secretary and then President of the University Geological Society, took part in an expedition to Spitzbergen, and also played rugby for the university; he graduated with the equivalent of First Class honours in 1922. Although he had begun to specialise in fossil mammals, in 1924 he was appointed Curator of Fossil Amphibians, Reptiles and Birds at the British Museum (Natural History) in South Kensington, London, in which post he remained until 1961.
Swinton produced many publications, mostly short, semi-popular or philosophical papers but a few rather more esoteric; one, for example, showed that remains from Nigeria, supposedly of dinosaurs that appeared to have survived the dinosaurs' extinction some 65 million years ago, were in fact those of gigantic crocodiles. His fame, however, stemmed originally from his popular book The Dinosaurs (1934). It might be compared unfavourably with the plethora of beautifully illustrated dinosaur books now available. But it must be remembered that it was based on a much smaller store of information and lacked the benefits of modern book design and colour printing. At the time, it created a great deal of interest, being the first - for a long time the only - popular book on the subject. It led Swinton to branch out into popular lecturing and public relations, in both of which he excelled. He developed a great interest in the use of the museum in children's education, helping to improve and update the appropriate exhibitions, and would sometimes conduct the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose on private tours of the galleries, storerooms and laboratories.
During his tenure of office Swinton occupied many voluntary extramural positions associated with geology and zoology, among them Secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, President of the Museums Association, Editor of the Museums Journal and Editor of the Proceedings of the Geological Association. He helped found the Natural History Museum's dramatic society and was also an ardent supporter of Chelsea Football Club.
His career in the museum was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served in Naval Intelligence as a lieutenant- commander. After the war he wrote three popular Museum Handbooks (Fossil Amphibians, Fossil Reptiles and Fossil Birds) and often appeared on television, notably in the programme Animal, Vegetable or Mineral. In 1959 he received the Darwin Medal.
In 1961 Swinton retired from the Natural History Museum in London to become Head of Life Sciences at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. He was promoted to be Director of the entire ROM, a huge institution where he was able to continue the modernisation of the exhibits. The University of Toronto also appointed him Life Professor of the History of Science at Massey College.
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