Norman Francis Hughes

Norman Francis Hughes


Norman Hughes

Norman Hughes, one of the founding fathers of academic palynology, passed away on the 18th September, 1994, after a short illness and his loss has been keenly felt by both his family and his colleagues.

I clearly remember my first meeting with Norman in July 1982 when in Cambridge for an interview for a research studentship. I confess I was rather overawed by his imposing presence as he appeared from behind masses of apparently randomly stacked piles of literature in his old office, conforming very much to my mental image of what a Cambridge don would be like. I had arrived with a mad whim about wanting to do a PhD on spores and pollen, but with no really clear idea of a research topic, so we sat down and started to work out a proposal together. However, at that stage I seem to remember that the only thing I could say in response to Norman’s question ‘What would you like from a PhD?’ was a fatuous ‘Well, I’d like to travel’. As he rocked his head back in response, that was probably the first time I heard the characteristic Norman chuckle, and I somehow realised that this was someone with whom I would enjoy working. Audrey MacDougall, James Penny and I all started working with Norman at the same time, and we all got on like a house on fire, but even so, such was Norman’s presence that it was about 18 months before any of us could bring ourselves to call him by his Christian name.

I first became of aware of Norman’s long academic association with the Department of Earth Sciences whilst whiling away a few minutes outside the Sedgwick Geology Library. Anyone who has visited the Department will probably be familiar with the corridor outside the Library, which proudly displays the photographs of the student geological society, the Sedgwick Club. For those with an eagle-eye, Norman can first be found on these group photographs as an undergraduate studying the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1938, proudly sporting a full head of hair. His studies were unfortunately interrupted by the war, during which he served in the Field and Survey Regiments of the Royal Artillery in the UK, North Africa and Italy. Norman’s military connections were to continue until, as a Colonel, he left the Royal Engineer’s Specialist Pool of Geologists in 1970. Following his war service Norman returned to Cambridge to continue his studies in 1946, when he again appears on the Sedgwick Club photographs, (although this time unfortunately minus the hair). A First Class degree and a Harkness Scholarship later, Norman began a lectureship in geology at Bedford College, London a position he held for several years.

It was in 1953 that Norman returned to Cambridge as a University lecturer in geology with special responsibility for teaching palaeobotany, a subject that was to remain his overwhelming research passion throughout his life. His first paper was published in 1955 complete with illustrations drafted by his wife, Pamela. This was to be the first in a prodigious repertoire of scientific publications, amounting to some 80 or so papers, articles and books, a total which is actually still increasing in number. As an acknowledgement of this tremendous research output, Norman was awarded the degree of ScD in 1977. Norman’s academic career had given him not only a sound background in geology, but also in botany and this pedigree was to provide him with a unique insight into both the collecting and interpretation of fossils. By bringing new observation techniques such as electron microscopy to the investigation of the pollen of ancient flowering plants, Norman began to detect shortcomings in the conventional methodological approach to data collection and interpretation. It was these perceived shortcomings that led Norman to propose alternative approaches to recording such data.

Essentially the Hughesian ‘biorecord’ and ‘palaeotaxon’ concepts are rigorous and philosophically sound alternatives to more traditional Linnaean taxonomy. Unfortunately, these radical ideas have been interpreted by some perhaps less free-thinking scientists, not as a method to allow greater access to and interpretation of primary data, but as a challenge to their life-long work. I would like to make an impassioned plea to anyone who has not previously come across the biorecord concepts to take the time to read through the methodologies that Norman proposed (Hughes 1976, 1989, 1994), with an unbiased mind. Anyone who has ever tried to extract data published several years ago for interpretative purposes will undoubtedly have discovered shortcomings in the nature of the recorded data. Norman’s proposals were primarily designed to combat such shortcomings. Whilst I would not claim to agree with every proposal myself, the clear, logical and above all honest method of recording palynological data should be held up as an example to all scientists. Norman’s personal crusade was to ensure that the maximum amount of information was recorded for the benefit of later workers, especially including statements regarding the type and degree of morphological comparison with other morphotypes. Records of this comprehensive nature can then be utilised by future workers, who will then be able to assess and compile data for other, as yet possibly unknown, purposes.

Unfortunately, Norman’s forthright views in this area resulted in him becoming something of an anti-establishment figure. However, I feel that Norman himself in many ways revelled in playing the Devil’s Advocate, thoroughly enjoying every opportunity to communicate his provocative and controversial ideas. Surely every field of research requires someone brave enough to stand by their convictions and to stimulate active, even heated discussion? Because of this, Norman was a very well known member of the palaeobotanical community, often being known by his nickname of ‘The Bishop’. In his philosophical approach to research, Norman perhaps more than any other palaeontologist, fully foresaw the tremendous impact that new technology and computing would and will bring to the field of palaeontology and biostratigraphy and attempted to prepare the ground for these developments. In this respect he was far ahead of his time, and although he did not harness computing power himself, he would no doubt be very gratified by the personal tribute from Professor Bill Riedel (Scripps Institute) posted on the Internet, describing him as ‘one of the most far-sighted paleontologists of our time’. Indeed, those of use who are beginning to make more use of powerful computational databases are increasingly finding that Hughesian concepts will provide a much more powerful research tool in this context: and encouragingly these concepts are finding great empathy with students new to the research field.

I myself employed many Hughesian ideas during my own PhD. In the final stages of writing up my thesis, Norman would read through drafts of my chapters. He would again chuckle at certain statements I’d made, saying that I couldn’t possibly say that sort of thing about someone else’s research at such an early stage in my career, adding with a glint in his eye however, that he would be able to get away with it as he had already firmly established his reputation in the field! James and I always found Norman to be totally unselfish, even lavish with his time, ideas and energy during the tenure of our PhD’s, indeed I think that it would be difficult to find a better research supervisor. Both James Penny and I came to regard Norman with great warmth and affection and would regularly refer to him as a surrogate uncle rather than a supervisor. In fact, after two years unofficial post-doctoral work, were it not for being intercepted by Norman in the Departmental Coffee Room, and his persuasive reasoning, I would probably have decided to turn down the offer of the lectureship I now hold in Southampton. As an indication of the formative influence that Norman had on my own career, when I am discussing problems with my own research students, I regularly find myself thinking ‘Now how would Norman have approached this situation?’.

Norman retired from his University teaching post in 1985, his career being honoured by the publication of a commemorative issue of Special Papers in Palaeontology written by his former research students and colleagues (Batten and Briggs 1986). It is another mark of Norman’s stature that many of the 25 or more research students he supervised during his career have continued on in academia or other teaching capacities. Indeed following Norman’s tutelage many have risen to great heights in the hierarchy, at the last count over half of this number had become either university lecturers (including several professors) or had joined the ranks of industry or geological surveys stretching across the globe from Australia and New Zealand via Nigeria to America and Canada. As a measure of the global impact of Norman’s work, on a recent conference trip to Argentina, a great many South Americans familiar with his work expressed to me their great sadness over his passing. Norman was also a stalwart committee member in many capacities in the International Union of Geosciences, the International Geological Correlation Programme, and was one of the founding members of the Palaeontological Association.

However, there was much more to Norman than his Departmental career. In 1963 he was elected to a Fellowship here at Queens’ College, and fulfilled many important roles with great dedication such as Keeper of the College Records. And certainly on his return to the Department in the afternoons after an arduous lunchtime wine-tasting, the rosy cheeks he sported indicated that the position of Wine Steward was one that gave him great satisfaction. Again I have many happy memories of the advice he provided to me on my several stints as Steward for the MCR (Middle Combination Room) when we were organising feasts or tastings for the graduates. James and I always treasured being invited to dinner with Norman and Pamela, spending many a pleasant and cultured hour, discussing Pamela’s fine artwork of which Norman was always so supportive, or their latest overseas visit and all the fascinating plants and birds that they had seen. Although I have to confess that after the excellent food and the many and varied alcoholic beverages such an evening presented, I always viewed the bicycle ride homewards with some trepidation!

Queens’ have lost a dedicated and respected Fellow, palaeontology has lost an invaluable and stimulating scientist, we have all lost a valued friend and colleague and Pamela has lost a devoted and much loved husband after over fifty years of happy marriage, and our thoughts and support are with her. All of our lives have been enriched by being privileged to have known Norman.

The successor volume to Norman’s The palaeobiology of angiosperm origins (Hughes 1976), was published shortly before his death. Entitled The enigma of angiosperm origins (Hughes 1994), Norman dedicated the tome to his one-time teacher Hugh Hamshaw Thomas with the statement that he ‘solved a significant part of the problem in the context of knowledge seventy years ago, but … was ahead of his time’. In another seventy years I believe people will be saying the same of Norman Francis Hughes.

Ian Harding
Southampton University
England, U.K.



Batten, D. J., and D. E. G. Briggs, 1986. Studies in palaeobotany and palynology in honour of N. F. Hughes. Special Papers in Palaeontology 35, vi + 178 pp.

Hughes, N. F., 1976. The palaeobiology of angiosperm origins. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 242 pp.

Hughes, N. F., 1989. Fossils as information. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 136 pp.

Hughes, N. F., 1994. The enigma of angiosperm origins. Cambridge Paleobiology Series, No. 1. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 303 pp.

Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 18(1):6-9, 1995.