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William Gilbert Chaloner 1928-2016

dfyjLyell medallist, Vice-President and world-renowned pioneer of palaeobotany and palynology.

Bill Chaloner FRS died on the 13 October 2016. He was born in London on 22 November 1928, the youngest of four children.  Both his parents were journalists. He attended Kingston Grammar School and evening classes at Chelsea Polytechnic where he became interested in Geology through the teaching of Dr Fleet.

Bill went to Reading University in 1947 to study botany, chemistry and geology, graduating with first class honours in Botany (1950) and remaining there to study fossil plants with Professor Tom Harris FRS, who influenced him greatly. For his doctorate Chaloner studied in situ spores from Carboniferous lycopods, a group of spore (not seed)-bearing plants that included trees 300 million years ago but which are mostly extinct and represented today by only a few small forms such as Lycopodium and Sellaginella. He was able to determine the main coal-forming vegetation of the time - plants which are all now extinct. This paved the way for other researchers to develop our understanding of how and why coal forms.


Bill obtained a Commonwealth Fellowship to spend two years with Professor Arnold at Ann Arbor in the USA meeting many American researchers with whom he remained life-long friends.  On the voyage home he met Judith (née Carroll, known as Judy), whom he married in 1955 and who remained a strong influence and support in all aspects of his life. They had three children. Judy died in 2017.

Bill was conscripted into the Army for two years and spent much of his time in Germany. Returning to Britain in 1956, he was appointed Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Botany at University College London (UCL), where he began to use fossil spores to interpret the ecology of ancient landscapes. He also helped start the UCL MSc in micropalaeontology, as well as undertaking a range of consultant roles.

Chaloner was promoted Lecturer (1958), and then Reader in Palaeobotany (1963). In 1961 he spent a year as visiting professor in the Department of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and in 1965-66 was seconded to teach at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka. During this phase of his career, the main emphasis was on palynology and also included his important 1970 review on the rise of land plants. From his field researches across the world, Chaloner was impressed by the patterns of plant distribution in time and space - both periods of extinction and periods of rapid evolution.

Forest fires

Bill was awarded the chair of Botany at Birkbeck College, University of London in 1972; he remained until 1979. During this period he pioneered the use of scanning electron microscopy for the study of fossil plants. He also became interested in ancient forest fires and the use of fossil charcoal to provide information on the levels of oxygen in ancient atmospheres. In 1979 Chaloner moved to the Chair of Botany at Bedford College, University of London. Here, with students and post-doctoral fellows, he pioneered the use of growth-rings in fossil woods to reconstruct ancient climates.

When Bedford College merged with Royal Holloway College, University of London in 1985, Chaloner became the first chair of Biology and then Head of the School of Life Sciences. He also held a visiting chair in Botany at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. At Royal Holloway, together with new and former students as well as post-doctoral fellows, Chaloner developed a technique using stomata (gas-exchange pores) of fossil plants to reconstruct levels of carbon dioxide in ancient atmospheres. He became passionately interested in the link in deep time between changes in carbon dioxide and climate, believing that understanding past changes would help us to understand the future, as he had been able to provide direct observations from the fossil record to compare with geochemical computer models and predictions.


Bill Chaloner received numerous honours for his services to science, including election to the Royal Society (1976). He was a trustee of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, President of the International Organization of Palaeobotany and President of the Linnean Society in its bicentennial year. The House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology sought his services as a scientific adviser to their subcommittee on biological systematics. He served on the Natural Environment Research Council. He received both the Linnean and the Lyell medals, and also served as Vice-President of the Geological Society of London.

After retirement in 1994, Chaloner was made Emeritus Professor in the Department of Geology (now Earth Sciences) at Royal Holloway University of London, and continued to publish research until his death. Bill loved teaching continued to not only teach in Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway but also at University College, Birkbeck College and the American University in London. Bill was a true polymath “technically astute, unflappable, manually adept”. With a warm sense of humour and a self-effacing manner he was ever approachable, especially for young researchers. His thoughtful, polite, and generous approach won him many friends in a long career characterized by excellent research, inspirational teaching and astute leadership.

By Andrew C Scott