1. "Life" Presidential address to Manchester Microscopical Society 1 December 1898.
Botany has been taught at Manchester since the opening of Owens College in 1851 when William Crawford Williamson (1816-1896) was appointed (half-time) professor of "natural history, anatomy and physiology". Williamson's teaching responsibilities originally included botany, zoology, geology and comparative anatomy. This teaching burden was progressively reduced with the establishment of chairs in geology (1872) and zoology (1879), and with the creation of the Medical School in 1872. After 1879, Williamson's responsibilities were confined to botany.
Williamson embodied, to a large degree, the older traditions of 'natural history', with its strong bias to taxonomic classification. From the 1860s onwards this approach was challenged by a 'New Biology', influenced by the research methods of German university biologists. The 'New Biology' treated the subject as a synthetic discipline, centred on laboratory research and grounded in the physico-chemical aspects of the subject. It was less concerned with taxonomy and morphology, and gave greater weight to the dynamic life processes studied by physiology and embryology. This newer approach was influential with scientists in London and Cambridge, particularly T.H. Huxley. In terms of botany, Owens College was not really affected by these new trends until the 1880s. This was not solely due to Williamson's traditionalism; he was also hampered by a lack of teaching staff and by the absence of proper laboratory facilities, increasingly seen as the pre-requisite for original research in biological sciences.
In the 1880s Williamson did bring in teaching assistants; firstly, Harry Marshall Ward, and later Thomas Hick. However by the time of his retirement in 1892, the Department had not taken on the challenges of the 'New Biology' to the same extent as had Zoology under Arthur Milnes Marshall. Williamson was succeeded by F. E. Weiss (1865-1953) who was well-grounded in the new approaches to botany, having been educated in Germany and at University College London. Weiss placed the study of dynamic life processes at the heart of botany:
"All biological studies, whether botanical or zoological, whether they deal with the histology, morphology, or embryology of plant or animals, lose not only their interest, but their very essence when disassociated from the consideration of the life of the organism. of which they are the expression."1
Weiss had been appointed to the chair at an early age, and it was not until the early 1900s that he was effectively able to develop a proper research programme for the Department. Initially, he put much effort into developing a corporate identity for the Department and building harmonious relations with his colleagues in Zoology; in 1896 Weiss and S.J. Hickson, the professor of zoology, set up the "Pleasant Friday Afternoon" seminars, at which staff and students could meet to discuss topics of mutual interest. Weiss brought in new staff as assistant lecturers and demonstrators such as F.W. Keeble [later professor at Oxford] and O.V. Darbishire [later professor at Bristol].
The students of botany in this period comprised several different groups, most of whom did not study the subject as the main part of their degree. The most significant of these were medical students, who required the subject for their pre-clinical training (fees paid by these students were invaluable to the Department). Botany was also studied by pharmacy, bacteriology and public health students. Other students studied the subject as part of the ordinary B.Sc. in science; relatively few took the single honours degree in botany (for example, 3 students in 1910, rising to 11 in 1920). Postgraduate study became possible in the early twentieth century, when the degree of M.Sc. was introduced in the 1904/5 session.
The Edwardian period saw a number of important developments in the Department, particularly the institution of a chair in cryptogamic botany (the study of non-flowering or non-seeding plants), and the opening of the Botanical Laboratories in 1911. The cryptogamic chair was funded by a bequest from Thomas Barker, a former teacher of maths at Owens [Barker had been a keen collector of mosses]. This was the only such dedicated chair in the country at the time. The first incumbent, William Lang (1874-1960), occupied the chair from 1909 to 1940. Lang was a highly-regarded botanist, who had undertaken original research in the development and structure of ferns, and later published on the tropical cryptogams. His most important research was a study of Palaeozoic flora in the Rhynie cherts of Aberdeenhire, undertaken with Robert Kidston between 1914-1924, which proved important for identifying relationships between algae and the early land plants. Lang's 'department' was research-oriented, and built up a considerable reputation in areas such as the morphology of cryptogams, the classification of Bryophytes (mosses, liverworts) and the study of fungi.
The Department's facilities were significantly improved with the opening of the new botanical laboratories in 1911, based in the Beyer building; these included a physiological laboratory, and remained in use until the 1970s, when the Department transferred to the Williamson building. Greenhouse accommodation was developed at the Firs Estate, in Fallowfield, aided by grants from the Royal Botanical and Horticultural Society, to provide botanical specimens required for research.
Apart from cryptogamic botany, paleobotany was one of the distinctive strengths of the Department; it had been an interest of Williamson's and continued to be a mainstay into the 1930s. Marie Stopes (1880-1958), the birth control campaigner, undertook paleobotanical research at the Department between 1904-1910 (Stopes was the first female member of the University's science faculty). However Weiss broadened the department's areas of interest to include physiology, pathology (particularly in mycology), and even a short-lived experiment in ecology. One area of growing importance was economic botany, due to demands of both local agriculture and colonial economic development. This was an area in which government and private organizations were willing to provide funding. University lectureships in economic botany and zoology were established in 1906, with J.W. Bews appointed to the botany post. Bews was succeeded by T. G. Osborn who worked on diseases of potatoes and the mildew infestation on raw silk. In the inter-war period Wilfrid Robinson, the lecturer in economic botany, undertook mycological research, particularly on the crown gall, and advised the Empire Cotton Growing Corporation on mycological matters.
Weiss had succeeded in developing a Department with a solid reputation in both teaching and research by the time of his retirement in 1930. He was succeeded by Wilfrid Robinson who died before he could take up the post. He was replaced by J.M.F. Drummond (1881-1965), previously professor at Glasgow University, who held the chair until 1946. Drummond's time was marked by little new research, and by the 1940s the Department had lost some of the direction it had enjoyed under Weiss and Lang. However innovative research had been undertaken during the 1930s in cytology by Irene Manton (later a professor of botany at Leeds) and by T. A. Bennet-Clark in physiology. Manton worked on chromosomal and cytological work in the pteridophytes (ferns) and Bennet-Clark, a former head of the plant physiology sub-department at Cambridge, undertook research into plant respiration and metabolism. Unfortunately both these individuals moved on to posts at other universities (Manton to Leeds and Bennet-Clark to Nottingham). Kathleen Drew Baker (1901-1957) undertook research of international significance on red algae, and produced findings of great economic significance on the cultivation of Nori seaweed, a dietary staple in Japan. Drew brought great prestige to the Department, despite only being an honorary member of the Department, disallowed by marriage from holding an official post. Other research interests were developed in horticulture, assisted by funds from the Royal Botanical Society of Manchester. F.W. Sansome (1902-1981), a geneticist, was appointed as lecturer in horticulture in 1935, and land was acquired at Jodrell Bank in central Cheshire for experimental research in horticulture.
Claude Wardlaw (1901-1985) succeeded Lang as professor of cryptogamic botany in 1940. Wardlaw was unusual in having a background in applied botany, having been a plant pathologist at Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad. He was an expert in the physiology and pathology of tropical fruits, publishing a standard work, Diseases of the banana in 1935. Wardlaw did much consultancy work in this area, but also undertook research on plant morphology, particularly of ferns, publishing five books on the subject between 1952-1968.
Eric Ashby (1904-1992) was professor of botany between 1946-1950 during which time he introduced a number of reforms in the Department. He was particularly keen to emphasise subjects such as plant physiology, pathology, genetics and cytology, which could attract high-level funding and began the move away from more practically-oriented areas like agriculture. Ashby left the Department to become vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast in 1950, and was succeeded by Sidney Harland (1891-1982), who was promoted from the readership in genetics he had been appointed to in 1949. Harland had previously been head of botany at the Shirley Institute, Manchester and a professor of botany at Imperial College, Trinidad. His area of expertise was cotton genetics, on which he published the standard work in 1939. Harland took over the chair at a time when his active research career was almost over, and he did not continue the administrative reforms begun by Ashby. On Harland's retirement, Wardlaw took over as Harrison professor of botany, with his former chair in cryptogamic botany remaining vacant until the appointment of John Colhoun in 1960. The 1960s saw increasing attention devoted to cytology, genetics and ecology, until eventually a new honours degree in genetics and cell biology was created in 1975 (administered jointly with the Department of Zoology).
Wardlaw retired from his chair in 1966, and was succeeded by D. H. Valentine (1912-1987), previously professor of botany at the University of Durham. Valentine's research interests were in biosystematic work on viola and primula and he was involved with the Flora Europaea project. He was succeeded by Elizabeth Cutter in 1979, an expert in experimental plant morphogenesis; she retired in 1989, after the Department had been abolished. On the cryptogamic side, John Colhoun was Barker professor between 1960-1980. Colhoun carried out important research in plant pathology, particularly diseases of cereals caused by Fusarium, and during his tenure he did much to modernise the cryptogamic laboratories. In 1981 Tony Trinci, an expert in fungal cytology and physiology, succeeded to this chair.
By the 1980s, it was recognised that some of the distinctions between the traditional biological disciplines were no longer as relevant as in the past. In response, the University instituted a major review of the biological sciences at the University, establishing a working party under Professor John Willmott. The Working Party's report recommended greater integration in teaching and research between traditional biological disciplines, and a closer relationship between biological and medical departments. These recommendations were accepted by the University, leading to the creation of a School of Biological Sciences in 1986, based on four divisions: biochemistry and molecular biology, cell and structural biology, environmental biology and physiological sciences. As a result nine departments of the faculties of science and medicine were abolished, including Botany. Fourteen members of the Department joined the new division of cell and structural biology, and six became part of environmental biology. Professor Trinci was the first chairman of School of Biological Sciences.
Harrison Professors of Botany:
- William Crawford Williamson 1851-1892 (originally as professor of natural history)
- Frederick Ernest Weiss 1892-1930
- James Montagu Frank Drummond 1930-1946
- Eric Ashby 1946-1950
- S. C. Harland 1950-1958
- Claude Wardlaw 1958-1966
- David Henriques Valentine 1966-1979
- Elizabeth Cutter 1979-1989
Barker Professors of Cryptogamic Botany:
- William Henry Lang 1909-1940
- Claude Wilson Wardlaw 1940-1958
- John Colhoun 1960-1980
- Anthony Peter Joseph Trinci 1981-2001