Humphry John Moule Bowen – RNG Herbarium – Collectors

Bowen, Humphry John Moule

Dates: (22/06/1929–09/08/2001)

Humphrey Bowen conducting fieldwork

Humphrey Bowen conducting fieldwork

Humphry Bowen, distinguished chemist and naturalist, died unexpectedly in Dorset, aged 72, on the 9 August 2001. He was a true polymath, a dynamic person, exuding enthusiasm. His Flora of Berkshire (1968) is the fastest produced county Flora. While working at The University of Reading, he often spent his lunch hours in our herbarium, identifying and laying away specimens and extracting records for Berkshire and Dorset. It was all done at the double: he was like a whirlwind. After retiring to Dorset, he collected many thousands of local plant records and published The Flora of Dorset (1988). Humphry John Moule Bowen was born in Oxford on 22 June 1929, the son of a celebrated physical chemist, E.J. Bowen. He was educated at The Dragon School, Oxford, and then Rugby. Sir John Cockroft appointed him to his first job at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment (AERE) in Harwell in 1953, to work in the Department of Physical Chemistry. However, he was transferred to Harwell?s Medical Research Council Unit as his research on neutron activation analysis using the British Experimental Pile Operation reactor enabled tiny biological samples to be analysed. Thus, it was no longer necessary to kill organisms to carry out analyses. He looked at mutations caused by irradiating Chrysanthemums (producing eight colour variations of a pink cultivar), Roses and Carnations, but found no support for the Russian claims of increasing yields in grain crops following such treatment. He did show that growing plants in irradiated soil did give increased growth through sterilisation removing the competition from microorganisms. He went to the atomic bomb trials at Maralinga, Australia, to monitor the after-effects of an atomic explosion by analysis of plant and animal material. It is reported that he was unimpressed with the organisation there and appalled when others botched the analysis of his very limited data. He regarded his work there as wasted, though his four months studying the flora certainly was not. He said he was often criticised for the propagation of his work on radioactive techniques around the world in case this led to hostile atomic activities. He felt very strongly that all his researches were for the peaceful use of atomic energy and for the economic benefit of the countries he was serving. His visits abroad brought him many overseas PhD students who in turn brought him great recognition academically and personal delight. In 1964, he was appointed Lecturer in Chemistry at The University of Reading, being promoted to Reader in 1974. He became Vice-county recorder for Berkshire in 1965 until 1988 and for Dorset, where he had for some years a cottage at Ringstead Bay. He worked furiously on his Flora of Berkshire, published in 1968 in what must be a world record for the fastest production of a county Flora! He received a small legacy from an aunt and used this to publish it. He claimed afterwards to have calculated that he had received the same amount of money after the last copy had been sold, as he would have done if he had invested it in a building society account. During this time he started visiting and using The University of Reading Herbarium and began depositing his voucher specimens there (earlier ones are in Oxford).

Handwriting sample

Handwriting sample

Many of these were of his alien finds and supplemented those already in the herbarium from J.E. Lousley and E.C. Wallace. He was known to be especially happy botanising on a good rubbish tip. He would spend his lunch hours, not only working on his own collections, but also helping identify foreign collections and even laying specimens away, including a great many lichens. Identifications were done at some speed and are not always reliable, but they were as accurate as possible with the limitations of the specimens and literature available to him. He proved to be a great help in getting backlogs cleared. He also provided welcome large numbers of herbarium specimens from his own foreign trips, especially from the botanical holiday tours he led around Portugal, Greece and Turkey. Throughout everything his unending enthusiasm came over and rubbed off on his students, colleagues and friends. He was also an important player in Reading Naturalists, helping to lead field meetings, collect records (not just of plants), write articles for The Reading Naturalist, etc. He supported the local county naturalists trusts, especially BBONT, now BBOWT (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust) by serving on their committees and by helping to raise money for them. He took students out on memorable field trips around Berkshire. On one he exclaimed: ?Just look at that enormous bracket fungus?, as he drove off the road and up a large bank. Fortunately, no damage was done and it was something that all were able to have a good laugh at. On another occasion, he became very concerned as an Indian student photographed the spectacular yellow Berkshire rape fields with Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, in the background. Although, to a botanist he gave the impression that natural history was his main job, he was a very active research worker developing analysis techniques and the removal of heavy metals (gold, uranium, iridium and rhodium) from solutions. The pollution from the Torrey Canyon tanker disaster horrified him and he used his Dunlop consultancy to develop foam ?booms? to contain oil spillages, too late to help save the wildlife of the Isles of Scilly, but still in use today. He published nine books, including: Trace elements in biochemistry (1966), Chemical applications of radioisotopes (1969), Environmental chemistry of the elements (1979), and even Introduction to botany (1965) with a Spanish translation (Introducción a la botánica) in 1979. He published a series of papers on pollution and its effect on plants, pushing him to examine lichens as pollution monitors. He served on the Council of The British Lichen Society (1972?1973) and on its Conservation Committee. His chief lichen publication is a lichen flora of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire in the Lichenologist. After his retirement in 1988, he went to live in Winterborne Kingston in his beloved Dorset, where he concentrated on the collection of records for a new county flora, published in 2001 shortly before his death. He was probably one of only four people to have produced more than one county flora. This latter Flora was his magnum opus, a work of scholarship and quite unlike his earlier Flora of Berkshire, complete with colour plates and more detailed distribution maps, based on tetrads. It is especially comprehensive and will set a very high standard for subsequent county floras.

Author of Biography: S.L. Jury

Biographical references: Jury, S.L., 2002. Humphry John Moule Bowen (1929-2000). Watsonia, 24: 268-270.

About Alastair Culham

A professional botanist and biologist with an interest in promoting biological knowledge and awareness to all.
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