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Muriel Agnes Arber, 1913-2004


Muriel Arber died on 10 May 2004, aged 90. Throughout her long life, she admired scholarship and enjoyed the excitement of scientific investigation. Muriel was remarkable for the way she enriched the lives of people who got to know her well. Her great interest in people and her sense of humour readily overcame the rather formidable impression created by her great height and independent manner.

Muriel was born in July 1913 in Cambridge. Her father was E A Newell Arber, who was Demonstrator in Palaeobotany from 1899 until his early death in 1918 at the age of 48. Newell Arber worked initially in the Woodwardian Museum, Cambridge, and was a key figure in the move to the new Sedgwick Museum. In spite of his early death, Newell Arber published six monographs on geological and palaeobotanical topics, as well as some ninety papers and articles.

Muriel’s mother lived to the age of 82, and became academically even more distinguished than her father. She was one of the first women to be elected FRS. She published at length on the history of botany, and the philosophy of biological observation, as well as writing detailed monographs on cereals, bamboo, grasses, and the general morphology of monocotyledons and aquatic angiosperms.

Muriel was admitted to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read English, but almost immediately switched to Natural Sciences, and eventually graduated in Geology. She then embarked on research on fossil brachiopods, under the supervision of O.M.B.Bulman, and this led to three detailed published papers. This work was unpaid, and, as was often the case in those days, money was scarce. Indeed Muriel often made the comment that she owed her existence to the consulting fees that her father had earned by applying his knowledge of palaeobotany to the stratigraphy of the Kent coalfield, because these fees had allowed him to marry her mother.

Annual visits to the West Country at Easter and in the early summer became part of her routine, and North Devon often alternated with the somewhat gentler coast of South Devon and Dorset, particularly Lyme Regis. Indeed residents of Lyme recently celebrated Muriel as their oldest tourist! She published a succession of papers in the Proceedings of the Geologists Association and the Geographical Journal on the geomorphology of both coastal areas, with special reference to sea-level change, cliff profiles and the active land-slipping.

Muriel Arber’s long connection with the Geologists Association led naturally to her election to the Council, then to Vice President and then President for 1972 –73. She was a long-term supported of the Cambridgeshire Geology Club. In her last three years, she helped significantly in the foundation of the Friends of the Sedgwick Museum, and was its first President. In spite of increasing disability, she took part in the first event, a walk around the building-stones of Cambridge, and a visit to Charles Darwin’s Down House, in Kent, where she particularly relished the audio presentation available because she was, by then, partially blind.

Mention has already been made of Muriel Arber’s excellent memory and her enthusiasm for science. To this should be added her enthusiasm for the countryside, evident in a slim volume of Housmanesque verse that she published in 1951 entitled The Old Mermaid and other Poems. Muriel combined many unusual abilities with a feeling that she was ordinary, a warmth of personality and a sense of fun.

Peter Friend