The ‘other’ Glasgow Boys: the rise and fall of a school of palaeobotany
With its long-standing coal industry working the measures of the Scottish central belt, fossil plants have long been known in Scotland. The earliest significant work dealing with Scottish palaeontology, David Ure’s The History of Rutherglen and East-Kilbride (David Niven, Glasgow) had been published in 1793, with its plates of Equisetum, ferns and bark impressions. But, as in Yorkshire and Lancashire, it was not until the industrial revolution’s increased exposure of fossils was matched by the advent of the ‘new European botany’ (which, in part, grew from substantial improvements in the optics for microscopy) that fossil plant study began in earnest in Scotland.
In 1959 John Walton reflected on palaeobotany in Britain at the end of the 19th century, as ‘awakening from a long sleep’. In Glasgow, this awakening centred on the university’s Botany Department, and the development of the study of fossil plants closely parallels the growth of this department as a whole for much of its time. In the same city during this period a collective of artists called the ‘Glasgow Boys’ were pushing the boundaries of representational painting. With Frederick Bower’s own cohort of palaeobotanical ‘Glasgow Boys’ (David Gwynne-Vaughan and William Lang) facilitating the work of Robert Kidston, a veritable ‘School of Palaeobotany’ existed in the university at this time. John Walton himself was also destined to serve an unusual, but critical, later role in the preservation of Kidston’s work.
Figures & Tables
Often regarded as the ‘Cinderella’ of palaeontological studies, palaeobotany has a history that contains some fascinating insights into scientific endeavour, especially by palaeontologists who were perusing a personal interest rather than a career. The problems of maintaining research facilities in universities, especially in the modern era, are described and reveal a noticeable absence of a national UK strategy to preserve centres of excellence in an avowedly specialist area. Accounts of some of the pioneers demonstrate the importance of collaboration between taxonomists and illustrators. The importance of palaeobotany in the rise of geoconservation is outlined, as well as the significant and influential role of women in the discipline. Although this volume has a predominantly UK focus, two very interesting studies outline the history of palaeobotanical work in Argentina and China.