Papers and correspondence of John Laker Harley, 1911-1990

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The papers include research material and records of Harley's publications, lectures and visits and conferences. The research material dates from all stages of Harley's career. Of interest are the undergraduate work 1932-1933 on the ashwoods of Ribblesdale which A.G. Tansley used in his published work and the graduate work, 1937-1939 with E.W. Yemm on ecological surveys in Wensleydale. Harley's research was almost always collaborative, as can be seen from the notes and records of the 1950s on beech mycorrhiza; his collaborators have been identified where possible but many others such as J.S. Waid, D.C. Smith, D.H. Lewis and B.C. Loughman are not represented. There is documentation of Harley's principal books ( The history of mycorrhiza and Mycorrhiza) and many of his scientific papers but there is virtually nothing in the collection relating to his work as editor, referee or advisor, notably for New Phytologist. There are lectures covering a wide date span 1940-1990 and some material relating to overseas visits especially to Australia and New Zealand. The correspondence is mainly incoming letters to which Harley replied in longhand and there are few extended sequences. Of considerable biographical interest is the draft of Harley's unpublished autobiography 'As luck would have it' and there are also records of his appointment to the chairs in Sheffield and Oxford.

Administrative / Biographical History

Harley was born at Charlton, Kent and educated at Leeds Grammar School and Wadham College, Oxford where he read botany. Some of his undergraduate field study work was of sufficiently high quality to merit inclusion in A.G. Tansley's classic work on The British Islands and their Vegetation. The award of a Christopher Welch Scholarship in 1933 enabled Harley to embark on postgraduate study at Oxford, on beech mycorrhiza which became the principal topic of his research career. In 1939 he was appointed a Departmental Demonstrator in the Oxford Botany Department, but from October 1940 served in the Royal Signals, being part of the Army Operational Research Group from 1943 and working in India and Burma; he was demobilised with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in September 1945 and returned to Oxford. His long connection with The Queen's College began in 1946, first as Browne Research Fellow, then as Tutorial Fellow from 1951 until his move to Sheffield in 1965.

From 1948 began the most productive period of Harley's research career, working with a succession of able research students on careful studies of factors governing nutrient absorption and uptake in mycorrhizal roots of beech. In 1965, feeling under some pressure from university and college administrative committees and hoping to be freer to pursue active research, he accepted an invitation from his old friend and former tutor A.R. Clapham to take up the second Chair of Botany at Sheffield. In practice, Harley found a considerable administrative and departmental burden fell on him there also, including complete redesigning and reorganising of the laboratories, and he was conscious of a further slowing-down of his research activity. In 1969 he was asked to return to Oxford and the newly designated Chair of Forest Science. His ten-year tenure of the chair was highly productive in his own research, in the development of the department and its research units, and in his many commitments to the university, to learned societies and to UK and international science. He was President of the British Ecological Society 1970-1971 and the Institute of Biology 1984-1986 and was awarded the Gold Medal of the Linnean Society in 1988. He was elected FRS in 1964.

See D.C. Smith&D.H. Lewis, 'John Laker Harley', Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 39, 157-175(1994).


By section as follows: Biographical, Oxford, Research, Publications, Lectures, papers and addresses, Visits and conferences, Societies and organisations, Correspondence. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

Entry permitted only on presentation of a valid reader's card or an Oxford University Card displaying the Bodleian logo. All applicants for new or replacement cards must apply in person, with a recommendation and payment if required, and with proof of their identity.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of John Laker Harley (1911-1990) by J. Alton and P. Harper, NCUACS catalogue no. 41/3/93, 56pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

The papers were received for cataloguing in 1992-1993 by the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists from Mrs E.L. Harley, widow. Placed in Bodleian Library (gift) in 1993.