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Claud William Wright 1917-2010

C W Wright (Claud to his contemporaries, Willy to the rest of us), who died on February 15 aged 93, was that most English of things: an amateur naturalist and archaeologist who was a world authority in more than one field while at the same time pursuing a demanding professional career, in his case in the Civil Service.

Willy Wright was fascinated by the natural world as he grew up in North Ferriby. The first contact with science came when the zoologist Sir Arthur D’Arcy Thomson stayed at the Wrights’ during the 1922 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Both parties were deeply impressed.

Early education at Bramcote Preparatory School in Scarborough was followed by a move to Charterhouse School in Surrey in the early1930’s. Here, Willy and his younger brother Ted collected fossils from the Chalk, exposed during the construction of the Guildford Bypass through the Chalk ridge of the Hog’s Back. Their first publication on fossils appeared in 1932. Wright went up to Christ Church, Oxford, in 1936, where he read Greats (Classics), graduating in 1939. At Oxford, Wright met W. J. Arkell, the seminal experience that was to make him into a scholar of international repute. Arkell invited Wright and his brother to contribute chapters to the Geological Survey memoir on the Geology of the Country around Weymouth, Swanage, Corfe, and Lulworth, an extraordinary undertaking for a couple of undergraduates with no formal training in geology.

By 1939, the Wright brothers had already published 20 articles. He entered the Civil Service, and joined the War Office as Assistant Principal Secretary a fortnight after war broke out. His subsequent career was: 1940, Private, Essex Regiment; 1942: Second Lieutenant, King’s Royal Rifles; 1942-1945, War Office, rising to GSO2 (Major); 1944, Principal, War Office; 1951, Principal, Ministry of Defence; 1961-1968, Assistant Secretary; 1968-1971, Assistant Under Secretary of State. In 1971 he transferred to the Department of Education as Deputy Secretary. In this position his career and his hobbies converged. Between 1971 and 1973 he chaired the Committee on Provincial Museums and Art Galleries. The Wright Report, as the subsequent publication became known, led to the establishment of the Museums and Galleries Commission, the renaissance of provincial museums nationwide, and the vibrant museums community we have today.

The publication in 1957 of his contribution on ammonites in the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology established him as an international authority in the field, as did benchmark publications on fossil crabs and starfish. Retirement in 1977 brought more time for research, in Oxford as a Research Fellow of Wolfson College, and in London as a Research Associate of the Natural History Museum. Our collaboration led to Palaeontographical Society monographs on the ammonites of the British Chalk, and that with Andrew Smith on British Cretaceous sea urchins. The revised Treatise volume on Cretaceous Ammonoidea appeared in 1996, and is the only revised ammonoid volume to have seen the light of day. In all he was the author of over 150 papers, monographs, and treatises.

His contributions were recognised by numerous awards, including the Lyell Fund of the Geological Society of London in 1947; the Foulerton Award of the Geologist’s Association in 1955; the R. H. Worth Prize of the Geological Society of London in 1958; the Stamford Raffles Prize of the Zoological Society of London in 1961; an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Uppsala in 1977; an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Hull in 1987; the Prestwich Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1987, and the Strimple Award of the Paleontological Society (USA) in 1989. He was President of the Geologists’ Association from 1956-1958.

Fifteen genera or species of fossils: ammonites, starfish, a brachiopod, snail, and crab bear his name.

Years ago, when asked how he found the time to combine a demanding career with a pastime more productive than the careers of many full-time palaeontologists, he remarked that his fossils, ferns, and porcelain were an island of sanity in a mad world, an island found by others in his profession who rose at six, and devoted a quiet hour to their postmarks, butterflies, stamps, or poetry. He also noted that, come the end of the day, no work went home.
  • For a fuller account of a remarkable man, see: Kennedy, W. J. 2006. C. W. Wright: a most professional amateur. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 117, 9-40.
Jim Kennedy