Obituary: Alan Charig

Barry Co
Tuesday 12 August 1997 23:02

Jurassic Park is the most vivid and recent result of the modern fascination with dinosaurs. But it was the work of such scientists as Alan Charig in the 1970s that started to bring these ancient reptiles out of the laboratory and into wider public awareness, with the help of television and of a new generation of illustrators with talent and imagination.

In 1974, Charig wrote and presented a 10-part BBC television series on the study of vertebrate fossils, Before the Ark, and wrote an accompanying book. His second semi-popular book, A New Look at Dinosaurs (1979), was an even greater success and was translated into several languages.

Born in 1927, Alan Charig was educated at Haberdashers' Aske's School in Hampstead and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In the midst of his undergraduate study, he was called up to do National Service in the Royal Armoured Corps. After learning to drive a tank, he volunteered to learn Russian, and became an interpreter in the British Army of Occupation in Germany.

After returning to Cambridge and completing his Natural Sciences degree, he became one of the first research students of Rex Parrington FRS at Cambridge. Parrington had collected fossil reptiles in East Africa in the 1930s, and Charig was given the task of studying some early ancestors of the dinosaurs.

When he joined the staff of what is now the Natural History Museum in 1957, he was at first given a post in invertebrate fossils and wrote a paper on a fossil mollusc from Fiji, but he was later (in 1961) transferred to the Department of Vertebrate Palaeontology when a post became vacant there.

This position suited his interest and character very well. His research duties allowed him to study the museum's historic collection of dinosaur fossils. As a zoologist rather than a geologist, he tried to interpret the structural differences between the major groups of dinosaur in functional terms. His interpretation of their differing solutions to the problems of efficiently carrying and moving their great weight remains a major contribution to this field. He was a meticulous worker; his research papers were always clearly expressed, with the structure of argument plainly laid out, and facts clearly distinguished from interpretation.

But his work on dinosaurs at the museum also brought him into contact with the public, which gave him the opportunity to use his ability to explain science clearly in simple terms. He was an excellent and entertaining lecturer, in demand at schools and undergraduate societies, and he gave freely of his time and energy. He was gregarious and garrulous, a strong supporter of such scientific dining groups as the Tetrapods Club, with a fund of stories.

Alan Charig relished controversy. He enjoyed disentangling the various components of a scientific theory, and argued his case robustly but always fairly. This, was most clearly seen in the 1980s, when he sprang to the defence of one of the museum's most treasured fossils - the beautiful skeleton of the earliest known bird, Archaeopteryx, complete with clear impressions of feathers and wings. A new theory of the origin of life, propounded by the astronomer Fred Hoyle, required that this fossil had to be a forgery. Charig and his colleagues comprehensively demolished this suggestion - though he strongly resented the waste of scholarly time involved in this debate, which gained much media attention.

He was not one of those museum workers who merely study the fossils that others have laboriously collected in the field. He was a member of the four-month-long expedition with members of London University that went to Zambia and Tanzania in 1963 and which collected over five tons of material. He also collected in Lesotho in 1966-67 (when the expedition found the oldest articulated skeleton of a mammal), in Queensland (1978), and China (1982), and visited many fossil sites in Argentina in 1995.

Though Charig retired in 1987, he continued to carry out research at the museum, especially on the very unusual dinosaur Baryonyx, which had been discovered in a brick-pit in Surrey by an amateur collector in 1983. This research, carried out jointly with his successor, Angela Milner, was published this summer. It is a fitting memorial to a man who gave generously of his abilities, both within the world of science and in explaining his subject to a wider audience.

Barry Cox

Alan Jack Charig, palaeontologist: born London I July 1927; Scientific Officer, Invertebrate Palaeontology, British Museum (Natural History) 1957-61, Curator of Fossil Amphibians, Reptiles and Birds 1961-87, Principal Scientific Officer 1964-87; married 1955 Marianne Jacoby (died 1987; two sons, one daughter); died London 15 July 1997.

Charig: relished controversy

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