Botany Ph.D. that never was ...

Dr Frank Bisby, one of the botany lecturers at the University of Southampton, where I studied botany in the late 1970s, kindly offered me the opportunity of taking a Ph.D. and becoming Dr Chadwell in the new field of Biodiversity Informatics! Dr BIsby went on to greater things, becoming a Professor and Chair of Botany at the University of Reading in 1997 (I had considered taking an M.Sc. there in 'Pure & Applied Plant Taxonomy'. Sadly, he passed away in 2011. I had not realised he had been appointed at Reading (not far from here). I would have liked to visit him and now, being Chris Chadwell, point out some of the problems with data-bases and biodiversity informatics - i.e. data-bases are only as good as the data which is input, no matter how advanced/sophisticated to analyses of the data which follow (or as one botanist who recognises the importance of quality field-work and the need for exploration in remote areas, observed, 'playing computer games with the records'. I respect those scientists who hold much higher degrees than me (I haven't even taken a modest M.Sc., let alone a Ph.D., but that does not me that I don't have insight and do not notices sound things that those in senior positions in institutions miss or do not consider. Though clearly Frank was a man of great wisdom in offering me the chance to pursue this field! He also seems to have been adept at obtaining funds for his research and that of the departments he worked in - an invaluable attribute! After all, not being at an institution, I have singly failed to get any funding for my botanical research; the only funding I have secured is for specialist horticultural aspect of my activities. For further details about Professor Bisby, see:


I had realised the role he played in the 'Catalogue of Life'. For an example, see:;

i4Life 'Indexing for Life' - a true taxonomic infrastructure project!

Frank Bisby has completed the formalities on his new project 'Indexing for Life' (i4Life). As well as funding the continued development of the Catalogue of Life up to 2013 the project is to use the Catalogue of Life as a yardstick with which to harmonise the different species catalogues presently used by six major global biodiversity programmes, and to make the Catalogue of Life available within each of these programmes. For the first time it will be possible to measure the extent of species known to all these different programmes around the world, and to traverse or index their different data sets side by side. The project is funded by the EC e-Infrastructures Programme. Dr Alastair Culham will take on the technical co-ordination of the project, following Frank's retirement. The 12 partners are the University of Reading (co-ordinator), Species 2000 Reading, EBI Cambridge, GBIF Copenhagen, MIZPas Warsaw, KNAW Utrecht, ETI Amsterdam, IUCN Geneva, Cardiff Univ., BGBM Berlin, the Smithsonian Washington, and MNHN Paris. See:

To be honest, I was probably offered the opportunity to study further not because I was a star student academically but because I was genuinely interested in plants. At the time I would say I was in the bottom half, intellectually, of the students at my university, which was a good one but not the very best in the country. In those days, only a fraction of the number who attend university these days, secured a place. Certainly no more than 10% of those of a year-group, perhaps only 5%. Though I can claim to have progressed since then, and my involvement with numerous individuals holding doctorates, suggest I can certainly "hold my own intellectually" with them nowadays. We all develop at different rates, with some reaching a peak upon completion of a stage in their education, whether it be 'O' levels in my day (nowadays GCSEs), 'A' levels, degree or higher degrees. I have observed this first-hand. Furthermore, whilst some people, within a strictly narrow field, are in a different league to my capacity to comprehend, many of such individuals cannot always, "See the wood for the trees" or are far removed from "the coal-face". I also started to realise that it can take 20-30 years before one fully grasps aspects of an area of study. Yes, brain cells die, one becomes forgetful and cannot learn new facts as readily but experience and know-how, often out-smarts those of more tender years they are, no matter academically brilliant they may be in pure brain-power terms.

Returning to the background for the offer for me to study for a Ph.D., I suspect that Frank adopted the approach of "better the devil you know" i.e. selected a student who had taken their first degree at the university where you taught. The problem for Frank was that the number who took the final year 'Plant Taxonomy' course was small and I was the only one with a serious interest in plants. I think he was really looking for a computer buff who knew a bit about plants. I have always viewed computers as tools, nothing more and operate on a "need to know basis"; my three sons, have all contributed to helping the "old man" in terms of IT. Matthew, my eldest, a Physics graduate, selected my current computer (and lap-top) and this web-site, intentionally having it as basic as possible - it has its limitations but the annual cost is minimal and it does almost all that I need.

I must say that I was disappointed upon arrival at Southampton to discover within the 100+ who were going to study botany, zoology or biology, few had any interest in natural history. This surprised me because I had thought that such an interest would be a given and like me, a motivating factor as to why I studied biology. Of course, I expected more to be keen on animals, rather than plants but there were not many of those. Neither did they have much interest in the natural world. I joined the university Natural History, Hill-walking & rambling, caving & pot-holing and briefly the rock-climbing societies. I also got a place in The Royal Naval Unit (see: which allowed me to view much of the coast of southern Britain and sea of course. I think I was the only member of these societies (other than natural history and us biologists may have been out-numbered even there). Without wishing to appear unduly offensive but the average student studying biology at Southampton at that time were a pretty dull lot. No doubt sound academically and plenty got a higher grade of degree than me, so do bout anyone reading this to which this comment applies can legitimately stick their fingers up and say that that actually got a decently-paid, proper job! This lack of participation in university clubs and societies meant that when the University of Southampton Ladakh Expedition of 1980 was organised (I was subsequently invited to join to be team-leader of the botanical project, see: none of the other participants could be described as an "outdoor type" like myself and critically, none had an first-aid training or understood the importance of basic hygiene abroad.

At one point I ended up as Secretary of the Natural History Society [see;], Treasurer of the Royal Naval Unit [see:] & even President of the Biology Society [see: for the equivalent society nowadays] (which came out by complete chance; I was playing a casual game of darks in the bar of the main medical and biological sciences building, when one of the people who was to go on the university expedition to Ladakh with me the following year, suggested me, I failed to decline quickly enough - as I often say to the programme secretaries of the clubs & societies I speak to around the UK, when chatting between the train station where they pick me up from, to the venue, when the conversation turns to the difficulty they are experiencing getting members to serve on the committee, that they themselves had obviously not "run fast enough" when asked to serve). Being the serious and reliable person I am, too much time was devoted to the societies (the Royal Naval Unit took up the most time with a training evening once a week during term-time and weekend cruises aboard ship).

So I was the only real choice for Frank (presumably my place went to a graduate from another university). I still have a copy of a letter sent to relatives, up-dating them on preparations for the expedition and plans Ph.D.-wise, I said that the planned topic sounded good to me, just what I wanted to do in fact. In reality, it was far from what interested me and I was definitely being optimistic when I commented that during the course of the project I would acquire the 'conventional' taxonomic skills. Frank, able though he was, could not be described as a field-botanist, plant taxonomist or hands-on plant enthusiast.


To investigate user demand for taxonomic information services for plants and to evaluate various ways of meeting this demand, using the tribe Vicieae (Vicia etc.) as an example. There would be 3 steps:

1) Make an assessment of the information services available to a non-taxonomist from conventional sources for the Vicieae by a) my initial enquiries as a newcomer to the group; b) enquiring amongst a 'panel' of users (Dr Bisby is working on producing a computer data-base [this would not have been on-line, as the internet was a thing of the future or at least beyond more basic, research-level applications] for the tribe at Southampton University and has got a panel of possible users of this data-based once it is started e.g. plant taxonomists, plant chemists, crop biologists, toxicologists, pharmacognoscists, archaeologists, weed specialists etc.); c) contact with other applied biologists.

2) To propose possible solutions or improvements where user demands are not being met efficiently. Enquire amongst taxonomists to discover what suggestions might be practical and amongst technologists in the communications media to assess proposed uses of printing, reproduction, photographic, computing or other techniques.

3) To assess the impact of one or two proposed solutions - by reference again to the Vicieae data-base project and my own experiments.

A number of times, when talking about what might have been (having no recollection of what I had written at the time) I stated that I felt it had been for the best that I failed to secure the minimum necessary grade of degree (which I, like the rest of the team discovered by phone-call from Heathrow, as we were about to board a flight to Delhi). I had taken to the airport a tome to read: 'Botanical Latin' by Stearn, saying I would take it to India if I got the grade I needed but hand it back to my parents who had driven to the airport to see me off. So the expedition did not begin well for me and rapidly went down hill (which you can find out about by going to the link at the bottom of the previous paragraph).

Looking back on this opportunity, I reflect that it was for the best that I did not start the project as it may well have "ended in tears", not because it was beyond my intellectual capabilities but that I was not really what he needed, from the developing data-base/computing world. I imagine the person who did complete the doctorate went on to have a secure career. I am curious who they might be, fast-approaching retirement?

The Departments of Zoology & Botany at the University of Southampton no longer exist - there is no longer a 'Botany' degree as such but that applies to every university in the UK. It is now 'Biological Sciences' (see: I did offer to return to the department to deliver a seminar about my assorted biological activities, beginning with the University of Southampton Ladakh Expedition which had both ornithological and botanical projects but according to the member of staff there who happens to have a hobby interest in growing unusual plants, most of the staff are biochemists who had not interest in living plants. Shame. I have given a lunch-time seminar at Harvard (and various other North American universities) plus a presentation at an institution in Zurich, Switzerland - so their loss. As I have mentioned above, even in my day, few students were interest in natural history.... Though their career prospects were much better than mine. I recollect the President of the University Natural History Society told me there was no value in knowing the Latin names of plants and he was right, having beyond a couple of contracts shortly after graduating, I have earned not a penny for my direct botanical studies. But I was never cut out to be a laboratory scientist, as a learnt during my gap-year between school and university when working as a laboratory assistant for Unilever in their Chilled & Dairy Products Division (see:

Understandably, it was a low-point in my life, after having failed to get a place studying for a Ph.D., to end up seriously ill on the expedition and due to criminal negligence from the leader and co-leader, was left with no choice but to leave early and attempt to make it home alone. It was the only course of action, no matter how reluctant I had been. I only just made it back in one piece - at times one must retreat in life, to live another day. Had I stayed, I either would have died or been permanently harmed health-wise. Still, it taught me valuable lessons: most people are unreliable, dishonest, dishonourable, so they should not be trusted. I was an 'innocent abroad' at that time but gradually, over a number of my early expeditions, smartened and toughened up. I also learnt to take care in selecting my travel companions. The challenging conditions of the Indian do not always bring out the best in people. Over all my expeditions, one person stands out as pretty much an ideal person for expeditions in high mountains: Magnus Ramsay - a 6 foot 5 inch Scot of Shetland Island stock, extreme hill-walker with rock & ice training and experience. He took everything in his stride, though nobody is indestructible!

A digital slide shown when I signing the praises of Magnus at my presentation to the local SRGC group when I returned to Threave