W. A. S. Sarjeant

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

William Antony Swithin Sarjeant, D.Sc., F.R.S.C.

On July 8, 2002, William Sarjeant died in Saskatoon. Bill Sarjeant was a geologist, paleontologist, avid book collector, fantasy writer, folksinger, Sherlockian scholar, and heritage advocate; he was 66. He leaves his loving wife, Margaret “Peggy”; his devoted daughters, Nicola (Peter Ryan), Rachel (Neil Sarjeant-Jenkins) and Juliet (Michael McKague); his grandsons Tristan and Rowan Sarjeant-Jenkins; and many family and friends throughout Canada and England to mourn his passing.

Bill Sarjeant had a long-standing interest in geology going back to a childhood interest in rocks and dinosaurs (not so commonplace then as now), which translated into his enrolling for an undergraduate degree in Geology at Sheffield University in 1953. On successfully completing his Bachelor’s degree in 1956, Bill was faced with a momentous decision, the nature and immediate results of which were described by Bill himself in a retrospective article published in 1984, in which he said:

I had wanted to study dinosaurs but could find neither material nor funding for this. Instead, I was given two choices: to work on Carboniferous corals under Professor Moore’s supervision, or to study Jurassic dinoflagellates under Charles Downie. On the whole, I was not keen on a thesis that involved much microscope work; and I am still not clear how it came about that I chose the latter alternative. Was it Charles’ persuasiveness? Was it that the word “dinoflagellate” was a beguiling echo of the word “dinosaur”? Was it simply my liking for Mesozoic rocks? Whatever the reason, in October 1956 I found myself on field work in Yorkshire in Charles’ company, collecting samples for palynological study; for I had been set the task of determining, whether dinoflagellates could indeed be utilised in the stratigraphical correlation of Jurassic strata. We scrambled about the Corallian rocks of Scarborough Castle Hill under lowering skies; and, progressing inland, we sought to sample the Upper Calcareous Grit at its outcrop in Howldale.

Here there was a slight contretemps. We were perched up on the rock face when we heard a voice calling from below: “Look here, look here, what do you chaps think you’re doing up there?” We looked down to see below us a large, moustached gentleman in jodhpurs and gaiters, with large double-barrelled shotgun in hand and large hound at heels, gazing up at us with face purple with fury. I said to Charles: “This is where the supervisor does his stuff!” and he descended hastily to face the empurpled landowner.

That gentleman was soon mollified. “I thought you were quarrying chaps; I don’t mind you working here if you are geological chaps.”

Despite this slightly inauspicious start, Bill went on in his doctoral thesis to demonstrate that fossil dinoflagellates were indeed stratigraphically useful – the first thesis to show the value that dinoflagellates have in dating rocks. To Charles Downie should go the initial credit of conceiving that this group of palynological microfossils might be useful, but Bill proved it. In so doing, Bill paved the way for other major studies in the field, including generations of students at Sheffield.

After completing his thesis in 1959, Bill was not initially successful in finding a permanent academic position. He taught school in 1959 and 1960 and served as what we would think of today as “post-doc” at Keele and Reading, before landing the lectureship at Nottingham in 1963. Despite the uncertainty of these years, Bill began his palynological writing career as he would go on – prolifically. By the end of 1963, he had already published 17 articles on fossil dinoflagellates, including several in highly prestigious journals such as Nature and New Scientist. Retrospectively, this number could almost be viewed as a slow start: during his tenure at Nottingham and at the University of Saskatchewan, he produced another 167 papers, as author or co-author, on palynological (mainly dinoflagellate) subjects, giving a total of 184 in all.

Many of the micropaleontological articles that Bill has written or co-authored have been important milestones in the field: they include the first book on the subject – “Fossil and Living Dinoflagellates”, published by Academic Press in 1973. Bill was at his most influential scientifically in bringing together the results from three theses: his own; that of another of Charles Downie’s student’s, Graham Williams; and that of his own student, Roger Davey. The resulting monograph, entitled “Studies in Mesozoic and Cainozoic Dinoflagellate Cysts”, co-authored by Davey, Downie, Sarjeant and Williams, was published as a Bulletin of The British Museum of Natural History in 1966. It was re-issued in 1983, an unprecedented step for such an apparently arcane monograph. It remains a vital reference in fossil dinoflagellate studies to this day.

Nor did Bill restrict his studies to fossil dinoflagellates. He carried out detailed studies of another group of microfossils – the acritarchs. He also became a major figure in the study of fossil vertebrate trackways. Although in 1956 he had made that momentous decision to focus the early part of his career on dinoflagellates, as his career matured, he felt able to return increasingly to his first paleontological love – dinosaurs. Or, at least, to the fossil trackways of dinosaurs and their fellow vertebrates. In addition to his 184 papers on dinoflagellates and other palynological topics, Bill wrote or co-authored 55 papers on fossil trackways.

A record of 239 publications in two areas of major focus would alone make for an outstanding career, but Bill had yet a third area of major focus, the history of geology, which yielded another 36 publications. Among these 36 was a massive and unprecedented benchmark in the field – “Geologists and the History of Geology. An International Bibliography from the Origins to 1978”. The original volume, published in 1980, ran to 4,526 pages. Later supplements added more than another 4,000 pages. The only word to describe this achievement is “stupendous”, and for this work Bill justifiably received the Sue Tyler Friedman Medal from the Geological Society of London in 1990 and the History of Geology Division Award from the Geological Society of America in 1991.

Beyond these three fields, there is yet more: Bill’s CV lists an additional 18 articles on other aspects of paleontology, 19 on other geological topics, mostly on mineralogy and, outside geology, 12 on local history and 2 on natural history. As an aficionado of several fictional genres, Bill wrote 15 substantial works – reviews, critiques and original pieces, including his 4 Rockall novels published under the name Antony Swithin. In recognition of his tremendous achievements, Bill was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1995, an honour that Bill was rightly very proud of indeed.

That Bill’s enormous productivity and range often bemused his students and colleagues is easy to imagine. But there is evidence that it sometimes even bemused Bill himself. One graduate student, Stan Stancliffe, recalls Bill coming in to his office and asking: “Do you remember that paper on acritachs that I wrote last May? I can’t remember where I submitted it – I seem to have lost all trace of it.” Stan thinks that that particular paper is still lost out there somewhere – the one that got away.

Lest it be thought that Bill had only time for writing and no time for people, nothing could be further from the truth. Alongside his publication record, his teaching record is equally impressive. His CV reveals that from 1972 to 2002, Bill contributed over 5,000 hours of classroom time. Perhaps surprisingly, his busiest year, with over 300 hours, was his last year – 2001-2002. At a time of career when a professor might be excused for retreating more into research – or even lighter pursuits – Bill was contributing his most significant teaching effort. He was still dedicating a lion’s share of his time to students.

Over the years, Bill successfully supervised 12 doctoral theses and 6 master’s theses. To many of his graduate students he was not just a supervisor, but also a mentor, providing crucial stepping stones in their careers and enriching their lives beyond measure.

Bill was many things: a devoted husband and father, a colleague, a mentor, a teacher and a friend. He was scientist, geologist, micropaleontologist, palynologist, ichnologist, historian of geology, local historian, archivist, bibliophile, field naturalist, novelist, teacher, communicator, folk musician – the list could continue. More colourfully, he could be described as an enthusiast, an amateur in the best Nineteenth Century sense of the term, a Renaissance Man. Whatever words we use to describe him, his influence in and contributions to this world have been huge by any standard – his legacy is rich and lasting. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that as we go forward in life, we stand on the shoulders of giants. William Antony Swithin Sarjeant was such a Giant. We will miss him.

Rob Fensome

[Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 25(2):6-8, 2002.]

W. A. S. Sarjeant: New RSC Fellow

University of Saskatchewan geologist Professor William Antony S. Sarjeant was one of two geologists elected this year to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada. His citation read:

William Sarjeant, University of Saskatchewan, has not only published numerous significant articles on fossil vertebrate footprints and fossilized microplankton but has also become a well-known authority on the history of geology. His book on fossil and living dinoflagellates is recognized as a leading text. Publications on acritarchs have received wide acclaim. His international bibliography covers all publications in the Latin alphabet pertinent to the history of geology from its beginnings to 1984. The only one of its kind, and the one which has brief biographies of authors as well as references, it has become an invaluable research tool for geologists and historians alike.

Professor Sarjeant has been a member of the Faculty of the Department of Geological Sciences, University of Saskatchewan, since 1972. He was a joint recipient of a Golden Trilobite Award from the Paleontological Soceity for his participation in the writing of A Classification of Living and Fossil Dinoflagellates and has also received the Sue Tyler Friedman medal of the Geological Society of London, the Founders’ Medal of the Society for the History of Natural History and the History of Geology Award of the Geological Society of America. Under the pen-name Antony Swithin, he has published four novels of historical science fantasy, under the series title “The Perilous Quest for Lyonesse”. A second Supplement to his bibliography of Geologists and the History of Geology, in three further volumes, is scheduled for publication early in 1996.

[Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 18(3):17-18, 1995. The news item was submitted to the Newsletter by Dr. Sarjeant.]

W. A. S. Sarjeant: Making Tracks?

Palynologists lingering over a cup of coffee earlier this year while listening to the radio may have heard a familiar voice. Dr. W. A. S. Sarjeant, long-time CAP member, appeared on the CBC Radio science programme “Quirks and Quarks” on Saturday, March 26th, 1994. Dr. Sarjeant was interviewed by host Bob MacDonald about his work on vertebrate footprints from Eocene sediments in Texas, recently reported in Sarjeant and Langston (1994).

This is the richest assemblage of vertebrate footprints of Tertiary age in North America and includes tracks from nineteen types of mammals, two turtle taxa, six types of birds, and two invertebrate taxa. These footprints are extremely varied and well-preserved and range in size from 0.5 m to about 3 mm. The tiny footprints, about the size of those made by a small mouse, are the smallest mammal footprints of this age so far identified. Interestingly, the taxa identified include a surprisingly high proportion of carnivores, five out of nineteen taxa. The tracks were made in a mudflat formed from freshly fallen layer of volcanic ash, wetted by rainfall. The mud subsequently hardened, preserving the tracks, and formed a 3 m thick tuff bed. This is similar to the mechanism invoked for the preservation of the remarkable hominid tracks of Laetoli (Leakey 1981:40-42).

Dr. Sarjeant points out that mammal footprints are a neglected area of research compared to the study of dinosaur tracks. Mammal footprints can provide valuable information on the structure of the foot, pads and claw configuration for example. These types of soft tissues are not preserved in the fossil record. Hence the study of mammal tracks can yield data on foot structure and the mechanics of locomotion that are not available from other sources. The pattern and relationships of the various tracks can also give a picture of behaviour. In contrast, in the case of dinosaurs, foot structure is comparatively well-known from the fossil record and the tracks give supplementary information on locomotion and behaviour. Dr. Sarjeant hopes to continue this work during an upcoming six-month sabbatical, when he plans to investigate a rich assemblage of vertebrate tracks preserved in Oligocene sediments in Texas.

Incidentally, anyone interested in early mammals may also want to look at the April 1994 issue of Natural History (Vol. 103, No. 4), entitled “The Rise of Mammals”. The issue contains many interesting reconstructive paintings and a number of articles discussing several aspects of mammal history. One article includes some mention of footprints!

It is good to see earth sciences receiving national media attention. Dr. Sarjeant is to be congratulated for continuing to promote geology to the general public.


Leakey, R. E., 1981. The Making of Mankind. E. P. Dutton, New York. 256 pp.

Sarjeant, W. A. S., and W. Langston Jr., 1994. Vertebrate Footprints and Invertebrate Traces from the Chadronian (Late Eocene) of Trans-Pecos Texas. Texas Memorial Museum Bulletin 36. Austin, Texas. 86 pp., 25 plates.

Alwynne B. Beaudoin
Edmonton, Alberta

[Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 17(1):12, 1994.]