OBITUARY : Professor P. W. Richards

Peter Grieg-Smith
Wednesday 11 October 1995 00:02 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


P. W. Richards made outstanding contributions in two fields of botany, the ecology of tropical rain forest and the taxonomy and ecology of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts).

His intensive field experience in all three of the major tropical regions equipped him to write a book, The Tropical Rain Forest (1952), in which he synthesised not only his own work, but much scattered information, often fragmentary and from obscure sources. Characterised not only by scholarship but by its clear style and readability, a feature of all his published work, it stimulated much further work on rain forest. Although many books on the subject have since appeared, it is still widely quoted. His later years were devoted to the preparation of an enlarged, completely revised and eagerly awaited new edition. Sadly, although he had passed the first proofs, he did not live to see it published.

In bryophyte ecology too he produced a synthesis (a chapter in Manual of Bryology, 1932) which opened the way to further work. His easy style of writing allowed him to produce two successful, more popular, books: the King Penguin Book of Mosses (1950) and The Life of the Jungle (1970). The latter not only brought out the fascinating complexity of rain forest to the general reader, but emphasised the importance of its conservation.

He was born in 1908 at Walton on the Hill, Surrey, the youngest son of H.M. Richards, then medical officer of health for Croydon, but moved to Cardiff and then to London. At the age of eight Paul Richards was already collecting plants. He was put in touch with G.C. Druce, who encouraged him and enrolled him in the Botanical Exchange Club, describing him in 1919 as "our youngest member". By 1920 he was also studying mosses.

In 1927 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1931 with first class honours and was awarded the Frank Smart Prize for Botany. With the award of the Coutts-Trotter Studentship he embarked on research, and was elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1933.

His early dedication to the study of plants in the field was maintained throughout his life. On starting work for his PhD he was persuaded to use cherry laurel, then a favourite plant of Cambridge plant physiologists, in physiological experiments, but he soon realised that laboratory experimentation was not for him and his thesis was on the ecology of tropical rain forest, work which he had already started while still an undergraduate.

In 1929 he was a member of an expedition to Moraballi Creek in Guiana, a major research effort staffed otherwise by experienced workers. On this he developed a technique of forest description, the "forest profile", which soon became very widely used. He would fell a narrow strip of forest, and measure each tree fully, with its height in the canopy, in order to elucidate the layered structure of the rain forest. In 1932 he joined a major expedition to Sarawak, and in 1936 organised and led an expedition to Nigeria.

From 1938 to 1949 he was on the staff of the Cambridge University Botany School, and in 1949 was appointed to the chair of botany in the University College of North Wales (now known as the University of Wales, Bangor) and remained there until retirement in 1976. On moving to Bangor he found a small, though active department. At a time of expansion, he was able to build up a much larger department with wide interests. It became internationally known as a centre of ecological research and attracted visitors from many parts of the world.

With the needs of students from the tropics particularly in mind, he established an MSc course in ecology, one of the first in Britain, which attracted many overseas students. A respected figure in the college, he served terms as Dean of the Faculty of Science and Vice- Principal. His own teaching placed emphasis on fieldwork and many students can trace their interest in bryophytes and ecology to his inspiration.

He was an active member of the British Ecological Society, (serving as President from 1962 to 1963, as Editor of the Journal of Ecology 1958- 63 and one of the instigators of the Biological Flora of the British Isles) and of the British Bryological Society, holding the office of President in 1978-79. He travelled widely, holding many visiting appointments in universities world-wide and attending numerous international meetings; those which included opportunities to examine vegetation in the field particularly attracted him.

From early in his career he was concerned with problems of conservation. He was a member of Nature Conservancy and of the National Parks Commission, and was chairman of the Nature Conservancy Committee for Wales from 1956 to 1967, at a time when many decisions on nature reserves were being made. His international standing and integrity were recognised when he was asked to serve on the committee set up by the American National Science Foundation to examine the consequences of the use of herbicides in the Vietnam war.

On his retirement from Bangor, he and his wife Anne, who had been a fellow student in the Cambridge Botany School, moved back to Cambridge and he was able to renew his contacts with Trinity and the Botany School.

Peter Grieg-Smith

Paul Westmacott Richards, botanist: born Walton on the Hill, Surrey 19 December 1908; Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge 1933; Professor of Botany, University College of North Wales 1949-76 (Emeritus); member, Nature Conservancy 1954-67; member, National Parks Commission 1955-59; Chairman, Nature Conservancy Committee for Wales 1956-67; President, British Ecological Society 1962-63; Editor, Journal of Ecology 1958-63; President, British Bryological Society 1978-79; CBE 1974; Linnean Medal 1979; married 1935 Sarah Anne Hotham (one son, three daughters); died Cambridge 4 October 1995.

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