Nigel Hepper: Kew botanist whose meticulous work gave warning of climate change


Ghillean Prance
Sunday 02 June 2013 18:37
Hepper (right) in Nigeria in 1958, on one of his many botanical expeditions to Africa
Hepper (right) in Nigeria in 1958, on one of his many botanical expeditions to Africa

Nigel Hepper was a botanist and specialist in the African flora. He was principal scientific officer and assistant keeper of the herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Hepper liked to be known as Nigel – and seldom used his first name, Frank. He was educated at Leeds Grammar School and King’s College Newcastle (then part of Durham University), where he received an honours degree in botany.

I first met Hepper in 1962 when I was a postgraduate student making weekly visits to the Kew herbarium to study African plants. He was extremely helpful and gave much time to me, a young student – but this was typical of the way that Hepper conducted himself throughout his career. When, much later, I worked at Kew, I observed that Hepper still went to all the student activities and often entertained students in his family home, especially lonely ones from overseas. He was a gentle, friendly and hospitable man. He was also a Renaissance man, since he had many academic interests other than botany – especially Egyptology, Bible plants and history.

He began work at Kew in 1950 and continued there until his retirement in 1990, a period interrupted only by two years of national service with the RAF (1950-52). He carried out extensive botanical fieldwork and took part in botanical expeditions in West Africa to British Cameroon and later, on board a hovercraft, from Senegal to Lake Chad. He also joined Kew expeditions to Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi and travelled to Yemen and Sri Lanka.

From his experiences in Yemen he wrote Plants of the Yemen (1976). He also authored many scientific papers and several books about his work on African botany, and worked on the second edition of the landmark Flora of West Tropical Africa, later becoming the editor who saw it through to completion in 1972. He described and named 73 new species of plants from Africa – and has had six other species named by other botanists to honour him, for example, as recently as 2010, Cercestis hepperi.

He also compiled, in 1971, a useful book on all the plant collectors who worked in West Africa. In 1986 Hepper initiated the Rain Forest Genetic Resources Project based at Limbe (formerly Victoria) Botanical Garden in Cameroon.

From a very young age growing up in Leeds, he began to note the first flowering of all the garden life around him. When he moved to Kew, he continued this study of plant phenology. These long-term observations showed a considerable change in the times of first flowering – and proved to be an important demonstration of the effects of climate change on plants. When he first showed me these records, Hepper, a humble man, was reluctant to publish them and stated that this was just a hobby. I was able to convince him that these were an important record of biological changes and fortunately, 20 years of these observations were published in 1973 in his paper Commencement of Flowering: Phenological Records at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Hepper continued making these meticulous observations in his garden almost to the day he died.

Emanating from his strong Christian faith were his scholarly publications about Bible plants: Bible Plants at Kew (1980), Baker Encyclopedia of Bible Plants (1993) and Planting a Bible Garden (1998). He was also co-author of Lands of the Bible (1995). He put his knowledge into practice by helping to establish a biblical garden at St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem. When Kew received plants from the tomb of Tutankhamun, it was Hepper, already interested in Egyptology, who studied them, and the result was his book Pharaoh’s Flowers: the Botanical Treasures of Tutankhamun (1990).

His interest in history was broad ranging – from his family, to Kew, to the history of African botany. He edited and contributed to the book Royal Botanic Gardens Kew: Gardens for Science and Pleasure (1982); three editions of Wakehurst Place: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow; and, together with Ray Desmond, A Century of Kew Plantsmen: A Celebration of the Kew Guild (1993).

He co-authored a book about Luigi Balugani’s drawings of African plants (1991) which were based on the collections of James Bruce of Kinnaird on his travels to discover the source of the Nile. With the Swedish botanist Ib Friis he wrote Plants of Pehr Forsskal’s Flora Aegyptiaco-Arabica (2000).

Hepper’s father kept a diary of his experiences in the Great War which Hepper edited and recently published. Captain Hepper’s Great War Diary, 1916-1919: A Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment on the Somme During the Great War (2011) gives an interesting insight into life in the trenches. His most recent book, Life on a Lake District Smallholding (2012), recounts his own experience of the Second World War, when his family evacuated to the Lake District and formed a market garden with livestock to aid the war effort.

Hepper was a humble man, but he was proud of his publications and of his family. At the celebration of his 80th birthday at Kew he produced an impressive display of all his publications up to that date, and I am glad that he produced at least two more books since that event.

Hepper was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a Fellow of the Society of Biology. He was the 1991-1992 President of the Kew Guild and received the Kew Medal in 1989.

Frank Nigel Hepper, botanist: born Leeds 13 March 1929; principal scientific officer and assistant keeper of the herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; married 1959 Helen Morrish (three sons); died Kingston 16 May 2013.

Nigel Hepper was my oldest friend, writes Tam Dalyell. Seventy four years ago, and I was a little boy of 7 in corduroy trousers, and he a senior 10-year-old at Harecroft Hall Preparatory School (defunct in 2011) at Gosforth, near Sellafield in Cumbria.

Many of the 40 boys were scientifically minded – their dads worked at Drigg/Calder Hall and were labelled the “Atomics”. We all had two square yards of allotment in the kitchen garden. Most were messy. Hepper’s were immaculate. He taught the rest of us to grow radishes and other vegetables – and when it came to flowers, he would insist on Latin names. When I asked to grow marigolds, he replied “Calendula, to you”. This would have been a matter of teasing and ribaldry at most schools. Not at Harecroft. This was the “seed”, if that is the contextually suitable word, that blossomed into one of the most meticulous of botanical recordists.

From 1963 over lunch in the House of Commons, he warned me about the effects of climate change. In 1984, in the light of his African experience, he expressed greater alarm. And, at the last reunion of Harecroft Old Boys in the 1990s – Hepper kept us in contact with each other – he forecast what is now received wisdom on climate change.

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