In tribute to Michael Proctor

Michael Proctor, an Associate Editor of the Biological Flora of the British Isles series, sadly passed away recently. Tony Davy and Donald Pigott kindly agreed to share their memories of Michael in the below blog post. We have also put together a special virtual issue to celebrate Michael’s contributions to the journal. 

The Biological Flora of the British Isles series lost a distinguished and venerated Associate Editor with the death of Dr Michael Proctor on 24 October 2017.

Michael was a polymath among plant ecologists. His apparently boundless experience of plants in the field was rooted in a taxonomic knowledge bordering on the encyclopaedic – and it was by no means confined to plants, of all kinds. He was also a superb plant photographer, as can be seen from the illustrations to his two New Naturalist volumes on pollination, published 23 years apart with his friend and contemporary at Cambridge, Peter Yeo.

Contributors to the Biological Flora benefited from much more than Michael’s expertise on pollination however. His insight into the composition, variation and distribution of plant communities was unrivalled and will be sorely missed. Only recently, he published a masterly distillation of this knowledge, as a third New Naturalist volume (Vegetation of Britain and Ireland, 2013).

He had been a key player in the National Vegetation Classification and a contributor to all five volumes of the resulting British Plant Communities, published under the overall editorship of John Rodwell. These volumes are now the acknowledged core of Section 3 Plant Communities in most species accounts but Michael always lamented when authors merely summarised the information therein and could not contribute original material, preferably from their own field work, or broader insight from the foreign literature. He, on the other hand, could usually do both, introducing information from his own foreign excursions or relevant material from the German- and French-language phytosociological traditions. He seemed blithely unaware that many contributors did not have his facility with languages.

Peter Thomas, another Associate Editor, who was taught by Michael at Exeter University recalls that ‘on the field trips he would tell us rambling jokes about Russians, ending with the punchline in Russian and a faint puzzlement as to why we weren’t joining in his laughter. He also had jokes with Latin punchlines which were equally baffling to us ignoramuses’.

All of this belies the scope of Michael’s own research interests. His PhD work was on the ecology of Helianthemum species, resulting in a classic Biological Flora article for the genus in 1956 (and two related papers in the Journal of Ecology shortly afterwards). Many of his subsequent papers in the journal were concerned with the hydrochemistry, vegetation and management of heathlands and mires. His largest oeuvre, however, was probably represented by his publications on non-flowering plants – mainly mosses and liverworts but also ferns and lichens – and thus was outside the direct purview of the Biological Flora (which was designed to cover seed plants, pteridophytes and charophytes).

Much of this work investigated aspects of their physiological ecology and fine structure, particularly featuring desiccation tolerance and photosynthesis. Almost en passant, Michael mastered a wide range of approaches and seemed equally at home with multivariate statistics, electron microscopy and the photochemistry of chlorophyll fluorescence. Of course, this did stand him in good stead for dealing with similar kinds of issue in Biological Flora accounts.

Michael continued to review Biological Flora accounts with his customary wit and wisdom until the age of 87. I personally will greatly miss the humour and discursive anecdotes that nearly always featured in the emails that accompanied his reviews, although I rarely felt able to pass these on to authors.

Tony Davy, Journal of Ecology Editor (Biological Flora of the British Isles)

The accompanying memoir is from Professor Donald Pigott, a lifelong colleague of Michael’s and, himself, a distinguished former editor the Biological Flora series (1954-1978); he has also been a serial contributor to the series for more than six decades.

I learnt that Michael Proctor had died while the draft of an e-mail I had just written to him lay unsent on the table beside me: in it I was asking for some information about Chudleigh gorge in east Devon, which was so beautifully illustrated in his most recent book and where he had first taken me some forty years ago and to which I had returned, both with him and alone, several times.

We called it our ‘schluchtwald’, recalling the German that we had both learnt from Humphrey Gilbert-Carter in Cambridge; this was in order to use a Swiss Flora to identify a plant in finals of Tripos. Michael came up to Cambridge in 1948, two years after me, and with us both already having an interest and some knowledge of the British flora, we met on Gilbert Carter’s informal excursions and we started a friendship and kept in touch for 68 years.

A particular memory of those early years, which says something about Michael’s priorities, was meeting him one morning during his Tripos examinations at the entrance of the Botany School. He was clearly going out with camera and bicycle and, on asking if he had no exams, he replied ‘not until later’ but as there was no wind conditions were ideal for photographing Linum anglicum  on the Gog and Magog Hills. I hoped that I would find that photograph in one of his three superbly illustrated books but there is only a reference to ‘the beautiful blue-flowered flax’. 

Those were the early years of colour transparencies and Michael rapidly became a master photographer of plants, not only of numerous species, but with his growing ecological knowledge, also of the communities of which each is a member and of the habitat in general. In these latter photographs his skill with capturing atmosphere, for example, the mass of flowers on the warm, sunny slope of the brow of the cliff of Brean Down in Somerset, with the sea below, or the light and shade of topography as in the view along Crib Goch to the summit of Snowdon ( Vegetation of Britain and Ireland).

In my last year, which was Michael’s first year of research for our PhDs, we both had Harry Godwin as our supervisor on similar problems of cyto-taxonomy and ecology of Thymus  and of Helianthemum respectively. The two genera have features and problems in common and we could share, equipment, techniques and ideas on such matters as, for example, analyses of soils.

Then I moved to Sheffield University which, in strange ways, resulted in a new relationship with Michael because I was invited to give lectures on ferns and bryophytes. Of the second, I wanted a field- knowledge, so I joined the British Bryological Society. I had the use of a small car and, on their Spring meetings, I joined up with Michael, already an expert, and we partly went our own way. We were on a chalk down in Dorset when, grubbing about on a steep chalky slope above Toller Porcorum,  Michael slipped and, putting his hand down to prevent a fall,  deeply cut the palm which bled profusely.  I drove down to the village, where the local midwife did her best and sent us on to the hospital in Dorchester.  For several years we met at these meetings and I took first-aid!

Another consequence was that I ran a field-course for students on Cryptogams at Bangor with John Webster, who lectured in mycology at Sheffield. It so happened that John was appointed Head of the Botany Department at Exeter, so when I visited him, I took an extra day or two to go out with Michael.

By then I was at the new University of Lancaster, where I was able to establish the National Vegetation Survey under the joint control with Derek Ratcliffe, Chief Scientist of the Nature Conservancy Council, which funded the project along with a much smaller but generous grant from the university. Michael was a leading member of the team and an important contributor of ideas and data. Also, during those years, he became a frequent visitor to Lancaster.

Michael, it seemed was not a person for committees but for action. I recall a long telephone call on which we discussed the value of his writing and illustrating a second edition of Tansley’s Britain’s Green Mantle. The first edition was the expanded version of the proposal submitted by Tansley to the government, after the end of the Second World War, to recognise the great value of nature in the British Isles and ensure its preservation by setting up a body of expert scientists into what became the Nature Conservancy. Michael believed this was a matter of the greatest importance and to which he could directly contribute his knowledge and expertise.

Michael had an enviable fund of knowledge, not only in botany and entomology in particular, but also geology, mathematics, chemistry, physics and probably languages but I never accompanied him abroad. In his book with Peter Yeo on pollination and fertilization, they include a facsimile of the original title-page of Konrad Sprengel’s ‘Secret of Nature’ and then a lengthy translation from the German.  I shall regard this as Michael’s work whether it is or not and I will know Gilbert Carter’s insistence on the need for a knowledge of German was not wasted.

Donald Pigott

Read Michael Proctors contributions to Journal of Ecology, including his Biological Flora articles, in this special virtual issue: Virtual Issue in tribute to Michael Proctor

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