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Robert Milson Appleby, 1922-2004

Robert Appleby was born at Denton, Manchester and educated at Sir William Hulme’s Grammar School and the University of Manchester. His boyhood interests in natural history (especially geology) and in radio were to determine his professional career as a vertebrate palaeontologist and as a wartime commissioned radar officer (lieutenant) in the Royal Navy Secret Service. Because the latter interrupted his education, he did not graduate until 1949, but thereafter he gained an MSc and a PhD from Manchester.

After graduation Robert Appleby was appointed Assistant Keeper at the Leicester City Museum and Art Gallery. Here he met his wife Valerie who worked in the Department of Art. In 1954 he joined the Geology Department of the University College in Cardiff where he remained, lecturing in palaeontology until his retirement in 1981.

One of his principal tasks at Leicester was to describe and catalogue their extensive but disorganised collection of Jurassic opthalmosauridea, together with a smaller number from the Oxford Clay in the Peterborough Museum. Thus drawn into the study of the osteology and taxonomy of marine reptiles, they retained their interest for him from the time of his first research through to the last days of his retirement. In particular he became especially concerned with the Liassic ichthyosauria and with the relationships of the ichthyosaur families in general.

Robert was a most careful and meticulous observer, unwilling to make a judgement without being very sure of his facts. In consequence his publication may look short but his work is highly regarded within his field and his invited contribution to the Geological Society’s Fossil Record (1967) considered authoritative.

One outcome of Robert’s wartime experiences as a radar officer (watching in 3D for the location of U-boats, sometimes aboard escorts on the hazardous Russian arctic convoy duties) became the basis of an idea for a research tool. This was to develop into an instrument that he called an Analogue Video Reshaper (AVR) using (in essence) a TV camera and a screen fitted with an adjustable electronic grid. By applying this to deformed objects and reshaping them on the screen to their original form, the associated distortion of the grid reflected the amount of deformation that had occurred initially. Geologically this could be applied to sheared fossils, changes in an evolving series, unrolling tectonic structures, etc.

Further afield, the NRDC promoted its application to design work and, as reported in the Police Journal, the police recognised its value in forensic work (e.g. unrolling fingerprints from a curved surface). In the construction of the AVR Appleby received great technical help from Graham Jones (a college electronic technician) and a patent was obtained in their joint names.

The rise of digital computing techniques overtook its further development, but the principle for analysing retrodeformation that Robert pioneered remains important and the invention led to his being invited into membership of the Royal Institution.

Robert Appleby was a private person, quiet, reserved, honest and cultured - as befits an officer and a gentleman. He found pleasure in playing on his violin, and with his cats. He enjoyed serious debate - preferably in small groups, or one to one - a characteristic often finding its expression around some fossil specimen in the laboratory or in the field. His concern for the welfare of others arose from his traditional Christian upbringing. His attempt to reconcile the latter with science was explored in two articles in Prism (a defunct Anglican publication). In a piece about Fossil Aches and Pains, he even finds in damaged bones a measure of a creature’s suffering.

Although none of Robert’s recent research has yet been published, at the time of his death he had prepared it for publication and his wife (who survives him) had completed the hand-drawn illustrations. It is hoped that his work will be published posthumously in the form of a monograph on the ichthyosaurs, which would be an appropriate memorial to his life’s work.

John W Baker