Obituary: David Dilwyn John

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The Independent Online
David Dilwyn John was at various times Scientific Officer-in-Charge of a deep sea research vessel in Antarctic waters, taxonomist and curator at one of the world's largest research institutes, the Natural History Museum, a major in the Royal Artillery and the director of one of the most varied national museums in Britain, the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.

Born in the Vale of Glamorgan, one of the four children of a tenant farmer, he was educated at Bridgend and at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. He graduated in Agriculture, took First Class honours in Zoology and did one year's research in Parasitology, gaining an MSc in 1925.

His scientific training first led him to the government-sponsored Discovery Investigations, carrying out ocean- ographic work of economic importance in southern waters. He spent three commissions at sea, learning his trade during the first and acting as Scientific Officer-in-Charge during the other two. During the third, remarkable voyage, on RRS Discovery II in 1931-33, the complete circumnavigation of the Antarctic continent was attempted for the first time and successfully accomplished. The scientists worked on the biology of the whale; Dilwyn John's special interest was in the krill - the shrimp-like crustacean eaten by whales. He was awarded a Polar Medal in 1941.

The next stage in his scientific career was in a very different environment: he spent four years before the Second World War and three after as a systematist and taxonomist at the Natural History Museum in London, studying starfish, sea-urchins, sea-lilies and sea- cucumbers and responsible for the important collections of these organisms. This work provided the basis for articles in academic and popular journals, in the "new" Chambers Encyclopaedia and for a DSc at the University of Wales.

Having joined the Territorial Army in 1936, he served as a regimental officer in Anti- Aircraft Command throughout the war. He was promoted Major in 1942 and awarded the Territorial Decoration in 1949.

The change from being a Deputy Keeper at South Kensington to that of Director of the National Museum of Wales in 1948 was, in his own words, "an enormous contrast". He arrived in Cardiff at a time when two major schemes became operational. They involved the creation of an open-air extension dealing with the traditional aspects of Welsh life, on a site at St Fagans just outside the city boundaries; and a museum service to all the secondary schools in Wales, organised in collaboration with the Local Education Authorities and their coordinating committee. Both were pioneering ventures in a British as well as a Welsh context.

These and other new developments, including important building projects, flourished under Dilwyn John. During his period of office, much greater use was made of the Welsh language, particularly at St Fagans, where the majority of the staff were Welsh-speakers first and foremost.

The wide-ranging nature of his duties inevitably led to involvement with a number of national and regional bodies - covering educational, cultural, scientific and conservation fields. His contributions - internal and external - were recognised by his appointment as CBE in 1961, the Presidency of the Museums Association from 1962 to 1963 and the award of an honorary LlD by the University of Wales a year after his retirement in 1968. During the next 10 years or so he was closely associated with the work of the University College, Cardiff, and became an Honorary Fellow in 1982.

Dilwyn John had a gentle and rather retiring disposition, a quiet and somewhat scholarly manner with a fine literary and artistic sense. He was a thoughtful, modest man who also had a particularly strong and determined personality which occasionally showed signs of inflexibility. Two consistent threads throughout his life were his very great interest in English literature, complemented by his constant concern for precision and exactness in the use of words and for elegance and style in expression. These interests were clearly reflected in his published work in scientific journals and his prolific correspondence as well as in his public pronouncements and his everyday speech.

Douglas A. Bassett

David Dilwyn John, museum director: born St Bride's Major 20 November 1901; zoologist, Discovery Investigations 1925-35; Assistant Keeper in charge of Echinoderms, Natural History Museum 1935-48, Deputy Keeper 1948; Director, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff 1948-68; CBE 1961; married 1929 Marjorie Page (one son, one daughter); died 2 October 1995.

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