Graham L. Williams

Dr. Graham L. Williams is featured in two articles of the CAP Newsletter:


An Interview with Graham Williams

Graham Williams, among many other activities, has been a long-time CAP member. This interview was originally published in Stuifmail, the Newsletter of the Palaeobotanical and Palynological Society of Utrecht, on the occasion of the recognition of Graham by the Society with a Honorary Membership. Special thanks to Lenny Kouwenberg and fellow editors for permission to reprint their article and photographs in the CAP Newsletter, and include it in the CAP web presentation.

An interview with our latest honorary member:
Graham Williams

1. When and why did you start working with dinoflagellates?

Graham Williams portrait

Graham Williams

This is an embarrassing question since it shows how old I really am. It was before any papers had been published on archeopyles. I was in the Army for two years, from 1958 to 1960. While in Singapore, I decided I needed to go back to university and be useful. So I wrote to about 20 universities in the U.K., asking if there was any possibility of doing a thesis in micropaleontology. A Dr Downie of Sheffield replied that no, he did not supervise theses on foraminifera but that I was welcome to write a proposal regarding dinoflagellates and hystrichospheres. I had no idea what either was so went down to the main library in Singapore and read up all I could find on dinoflagellates in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But there was nothing on hystrichospheres. I figured out they were spiny spheres but that’s not a lot of help. So I wrote a proposal and every time I mentioned dinoflagellates, I wrote in hystrichospheres. Much to my surprise, I was accepted. I arrived back from Singapore on 15th September and started at Sheffield on 1st October 1960. Charles Downie told me that my research study would be the dinoflagellates and hystrichospheres of the Bajocian-Bathonian. I said I didn’t want to do that; I wanted to work on the Tertiary. Luckily, Charles had a friend who had picked some forams from the London Clay. In the samples were some beautiful pyritized hystrichospheres. I later found out that they were specimens of Hystrichosphaeridium tubiferum. So we agreed that I would study the dinoflagellates and hystrichospheres of the London Clay. What a lucky choice that turned out to be.

2. Could you tell something about the research you’re doing (for those non-dino people, who don’t know you)?

I am one of about twenty people in the Marine Resources Geoscience Subdivision (only the government could invent such a name), which studies the geological evolution of the sedimentary basins of offshore eastern Canada. The group was formed in 1971. I’m the only one of the original (you didn’t know that I was an original) staff still working full time. Originally, it was decided to use foraminifera, ostracods and palynomorphs for biostratigraphic control in the offshore wells, but the palynomorphs won out. Now, we have two palynologists, Rob and me. We analyse mainly cuttings samples from the wells, most of which are in the Scotian Basin or the Jeanne d’Arc Basin. Offshore eastern Canada is becoming an important contributor to the oil and natural gas production of Canada. The Hibernia field in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin produces about 150,000 barrels each day. The reserves are placed at 884 million barrels. That sounds a lot until you remember that the World’s consumption is about 75 million barrels a day. Another development in the Scotian Basin, the Sable Offshore Energy Project, is producing about 400 million cubic feet per day of natural gas. This morning there was an announcement that a similar sized field is going to be developed close by Sable. It’s an exciting time to be doing palynology, especially as the regional geologists and geophysicists are always looking for more biostratigraphic and paleoecologic data.

3. What did you want to be as a grown-up when you were a kid (and why didn’t you learn any proper trade in the end)?

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a train driver. Then my sister decided that she was going to be a doctor. I thought that sounded interesting but found out that I didn’t enjoy dissecting frogs or dogfish. I also was lousy when trying to do anything that required a steady hand. So I looked around for something solid. What’s more solid than rocks. That decided me, although I knew nothing about geology until I went to university. And I still don’t know much.

4. What’s your favourite dinoflagellate cyst (and why)?

I have several but top of the hit parade is Charlesdowniea crassiramosa. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Wetzeliella (everything was group, but I really fell for the huge specimens of then Wetzeliella tenuivirgula var. crassoramosa. It took me about a day to traverse the first specimen I found: it was so big. Eventually I produced, for me, a major work of art, a camera lucida drawing of both surfaces. That was a labour of love. My second favourite is Areosphaeridium diktyoplokum. The specimens are so spectacular and it photographs so spectacularly. Somewhere, I have one of Lew Stover’s transparencies (Henk Brinkhuis always calls these slides) that shows the duplication of the plate outline by the distal extremity of the process on the antapical plate. The third star in my list is Homotryblium tenuispinosum. I couldn’t figure this one out at all. Then Bill Evitt’s classic 1961 paper appeared and I realised what hystrichospheres were all about. It was like being hit by a thunderbolt when I first read that paper in the library at Sheffield University. I started writing to Bill and was really impressed with how he always answered both my numerous questions and my letters. Bill deserves all the credit for figuring out Homotryblium but he let me take all the credit. Thanks to him, I did some research and didn’t simply count spines on round spheres.

5. When and how did you get in touch with the PPGU/ the people from Utrecht?

Graham Williams with groups at PPGU

L-R: Dr Henk Brinkhuis, Dr Rike Wagner (Chair, PPGU), Dr Graham Williams, Dr Henk Visscher, and Erica Crouch (former PPGU Treasurer)

I first met Henk Brinkhuis at an ICP meeting in Calgary in 1981 but he didn’t register. We first really got to know each other at Dino 4 in Woods Hole in 1989. Woods Hole is tiny, but it has one bar that is open all year round. Lew Stover dropped in the first night and there was this weird character telling jokes. And surprisingly, they were good jokes. That started Lew and me off and we enjoyed ourselves so much that we went back the following night. And the following night, until the end of the week. After that, Lew, Henk and I became good friends. Henk, always willing to take risks, decided that Lou, Henk and I should give a course at Utrecht on Tertiary dinoflagellates. We agreed we should also invite Sarah Damassa and decided the course would be in 1993, in conjunction with Dino 5. Sadly, Lou died in early 1993 and I told Henk that I didn’t want to give the course. We agreed to present it the following year and so I paid my first visit to Utrecht in June 1994. I couldn’t believe it, it rained every day and was cold (even by Canadian standards). However, I survived. Since 1994, I have been back to Utrecht so many times and made to feel so welcome that I regard it as my second home. I have even survived the dreaded one-day drive to Italy and enjoyed it. Hopefully, I shall make many more visits to the LPP group.

6. What do you like best about visiting the Netherlands? And Almelo (if there’s anything)?

The natives, and the visiting students, are the best part of the Netherlands. Much to my surprise, you all have a great sense of humour and never take yourselves too seriously. I remember when I was a student at Sheffield University. I always called Charles Downie Sir or Dr Downie. He was staff and I was a student. And students and staff did not socialise except at the annual dinner of the geological society and on field trips. At LPP, the atmosphere is friendly but dynamic. The relationship between the students and staff is something that I wish I had had when at university. Another aspect that I really enjoy is working and talking with the students. They all seem so smart and hard working but they also know how to have a good time. There’s a lot of truth in the old saying that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy or Jill a dull girl. I think the mix at LPP is perfect. I finding it stimulating to learn what everyone is doing and some of the exciting research projects. I live primarily in a world of cuttings where biostratigraphy is the name of the game. It’s a new experience to hear about paleoecological studies where the quantitative data is so much more important. One of the best projects I been involved in, thanks to Henk, is the Leg 189 palynology study. I’m impressed with how Henk can utilise the data to predict changes in paleocirculation and nutrient levels. And, just as significant, is that we should be able to develop the first comprehensive dinocyst zonation for the southern hemisphere Cenozoic. Almelo has a lot going for it, although it needs a soccer team that plays in the Premier League. For me, the most memorable aspect is the tremendous hospitality of Annemie and Henk. And the theatre shows are spectacular.

7. How did you feel when you were declared an honourary member of the PPGU?

I was stunned and completely taken aback. Did you notice that I didn’t say much. That is my quirky way of hiding my emotions. It was an honour that I did not expect. On Friday morning when we arrived in Utrecht, Henk said that the day would be full of surprises. I couldn’t figure out what he meant. Later, I asked if I could pay my LPP membership dues and Henk said that I was paid up. I suggested that I pay up for next year and was told that that was also paid. I was really surprised. Then we started having all the trouble with the projectors during the mini-symposium and I thought, this is it. But the biggest surprise was at the end when Erica gave that incredible speech. If she ever needs a job, I’ll give her one as my speechwriter.

8. How many lumberjack shirts do you possess (and does this have anything to do with question 3)?

I have a confession. If an article of clothing is in fashion, I don’t want to wear it. That’s why I’ve never had a pair of blue jeans. Although lumberjack shirts are not as popular here as in western Canada, they are too popular for me.

Just a closing remark. Val and I would like to thank all the PPGU gang for their support last year. It really made a big difference.

[Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 24(1):7-9, 2001.]


Dr. Graham L. Williams Presented with the
AASP Medal of Scientific Excellence

Graham Williams was awarded the AASP Medal of Scientific Excellence at the recent IPC meeting in Houston, Texas. The medal was presented by Jan Jansonius at the AASP Annual Luncheon on June 26, 1996. The citation, which was read by Jan Jansonius, is as follows:

Graham Williams began his study of fossil dinoflagellates as a postgraduate student with Charles Downie in 1959. His 1963 doctoral thesis dealt with Paleogene dinoflagellates of the London Clay. This was one of the first detailed studies of Paleogene fossil dinoflagellates and in its published form, as part of the now famous “DDSW” (Davey, Downie, Sarjeant and Williams 1966) monograph, had great influence — both for the descriptions and indicated ranges of many important new species, but also for the exemplary style and format of the descriptions.

After his graduation, Graham found a job as palynologist with Pan American Petroleum (now Amoco Petroleum Company). His first project was to set up a biostratigraphic framework for nonmarine Tertiary sediments of Washington and Oregon, obviously based on pollen and spores. Next, he was assigned to study the biostratigraphy of the East Coast offshore of Canada where Amoco was drilling. When, in 1971, the Geological Survey of Canada opened an eastern office, the Atlantic Geoscience Centre (now Geological Survey of Canada, Atlantic) in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, it was natural that Graham would become its resident Mesozoic-Tertiary palynostratigrapher.

During the early years at AGC, Graham examined a large number of wells and gained an increasing knowledge of dinoflagellate biostratigraphy. This phase of his career culminated in a GSC Paper entitled “Palynological zonation and correlation of 67 wells, eastern Canada” (Barss et al. 1979), of which Graham was the most significant contributor, having run 44 of the 67 wells in about eight years. Graham was also the moving force behind several papers outlining the dinoflagellate zonation of offshore eastern Canada (Williams 1975; Williams and Bujak 1977; Bujak and Williams 1977, 1978).

During that same decade, in spite of this exhausting pace, Graham started his collaboration with Judi Lentin in producing the “Lentin and Williams” indexes of fossil dinoflagellates (Lentin and Williams 1973, 1977, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1993). This index is a primary reason why fossil dinoflagellate taxonomy is in an organized state, unlike the taxonomy of most other microfossil groups; it has set the standard for other indexes. Graham is now involved in a seventh edition of this classic. Still during this period, Graham used his expertise to contribute chapters on dinoflagellates and related microfossils to two multi-authored textbooks (Williams 1977, 1978) and as well was the driving force behind two editions of a glossary on dinoflagellate and acritarch terminology (Williams et al. 1972, 1978), of which a third edition is almost ready for publication. And, finally, he co-authored a major monograph on fossil peridinioid dinoflagellates (Lentin and Williams 1980).

In 1978, Graham became Head of the Eastern Petroleum Geology Subdivision at the AGC, but he continued to publish. Apart from two editions of the Lentin and Williams Index, he completed another contribution on the Paleogene of southern England (Bujak et al. 1980), and three important conceptual papers, respectively on dinoflagellate evolution (Bujak and Williams 1981), dinoflagellate diversity through time (Bujak and Williams 1979), and paleoprovincialism (Lentin and Williams 1980).

In 1985, Graham realized that management was not his true vocation, and he stepped back into the trenches as a research scientist. His first task was as co-editor of a major volume on the continental margin of eastern Canada in the Decade of North American Geology (DNAG) series (Keen and Williams 1990), which included a definitive overview of the biostratigraphy (Williams et al. 1990).

Indeed, Graham’s contributions to areas other than palynology have become increasingly noticeable. He was a leading founder of the Atlantic Geoscience Society, to which he made a number of significant contributions, such as assisting in the planning and production of a series of videos on geology for use in schools. He further is involved in the EdGeo instructional workshops for teachers in Nova Scotia, as well as SITS (Scientists in the Schools) program, and regularly gives presentations on geology to school children. Graham was senior editor of the “Lexicon of Canadian Stratigraphy. Volume VI. Atlantic Region” (Williams et al. 1985), and currently is deputy-editor of Canada’s most prestigious geoscience journal, the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences.

However, Graham’s most important expertise is in dinoflagellate research, where his vast energy and acute perceptiveness have caused him to acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of fossil dinoflagellates which he is willing to share without reserve. His reviews of manuscripts are invariably helpful and instructive, because he is a great teacher. For two recent courses (given in 1994, mainly with Henk Brinkhuis and Sarah Damassa, at Utrecht and Houston), Graham developed a system of sheets detailing published justification for ranges—a further innovative tool demonstrating his great respect for, and attention to, detail.

Since stepping down from management, Graham has continued his research on dinoflagellates. This resulted in a benchmark publication on dinoflagellate biostratigraphy (Williams and Bujak 1985); a catalogue of fossil dinoflagellate genera with his great friend Lew Stover (Stover and Williams 1987); contributions to the New Series of the prestigious “Eisenack Catalog” (Fensome et al. 1991, 1993, 1995, in press), not to mention smaller but still important papers. He further played a vital role in formulating the first detailed comprehensive phylogenetic classification of dinoflagellates (Fensome et al. 1993a), and has been integrally involved in contributing ideas to a series of papers on dinoflagellate evolutionary patterns (Fensome et al., in press; MacRae et al., in press; Damassa and Williams, in press). Perhaps most significant for AASP was Graham’s idea to produce a multi-authored textbook on palynology, that evolved into Palynology: Principles and Applications (Jansonius and McGregor 1996). Graham, Rob Fensome, and Bruce Tocher together set out the first scheme for this work while driving home from Dino IV, but it was Graham’s initial concept that took off under the impetus of his drive and energy. Typically, in the chapter for which he was responsible (Stover et al. 1996), Graham made himself the last author, although he contributed by far the greater share of the work.

Graham has always considered himself to be a member of the larger paleontological and geological community, but in co-operative projects is modest and self-effacing—even when he provides the main stimulus towards progress. Throughout his career he has shown integrity and excellent judgement, and has contributed enormously in nurturing what was an emerging discipline, helping to shepherd it to a maturity where it has become an essential component of frontier exploration worldwide. Characteristically, the larger part of Graham’s monumental output is in joint authorship. This account gives only the highlights of his career; the details would fill many more pages. With prodigious energy and phenomenal power of concentration, he will work long days to finish his commitments, while always keeping a positive attitude and cheerful disposition. He cares deeply not only about science as a field of endeavour, but about his colleagues as scientists and people. He has achieved excellence in every sense of the word, and his nomination for the AASP Medal of Scientific Excellence is surprising only in that it has been so long in coming.

[Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 19(2):14-16, 1996. This citation was originally published in AASP Newsletter 29(3):6-7. It appeared, together with literature citations and responses, in Palynology Volume 21.]