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Palaeontological Association History

...or "The origin and early evolution of the Palaeontological Association (or, who was really in the taxi?)"

Note: The account below was written as a personal account by Professor Frank Hodson (1921-2002) of the University of Southampton, at the time of the 25th Annual Meeting in Sheffield in 1982. The documents on which the text is based are kept with the Association’s archives and are available for study. This text was first published in the Palaeontology Newsletter No. 64.

The story of the Palaeontological Association starts on a Wednesday in the Autumn of 1954. Bill Ramsbottom and I emerged from the, then, Geological Survey Museum into Exhibition Road to bump into Gwyn Thomas coming down from Imperial College, and the three of us caught up with Bill Ball leaving the Natural History Museum. We were all on our way to the South Kensington tube to attend a meeting of the Geological Society of London at Burlington House. It seemed a reasonable economy, important in those days, to share a taxi. During the journey through the slow­moving traffic, talk, as usual, centred on the then current inadequacies of the Geological Society of London. The two papers permitted on a single evening might deal with completely disparate sub­disciplines. Questions were answered only after all of them had been put to the speaker. Of course, here were no ‘seconds’, no cut and thrust, no repartee, all very formal and often so diplomatic that real discussion was hardly forthcoming. The place was always crowded. When two diverse topics were to be aired on the same evening, specialist devotees doubled the attendance and the old parliamentary seating arrangements were very inconvenient. In addition, an archaic election and voting procedure for Fellowship held up the scientific business.

Palaeontologists had been particularly exasperated by the lack of publication facilities in the UK for papers which demanded illustration; in particular Goldring’s Pilton trilobite paper had appeared in Germany. Hudson’s stromatoporoid papers were being published in France, and Parkinson’s statistical investigations of Carboniferous Brachiopoda had been rejected by the Geological Society, ultimately to appear in the American Journal of Paleontology and to be judged as the best paper to appear in that particular year in the prestigious journal.

It was generally felt (probably wrongly) that the bane of the Society was its Dining Club, to which only the elite had access and where the inherited cautious policy of the Society was perpetuated. Certainly suggestions to the ruling hierarchy of the time were abruptly dismissed as impious. For instance, a suggestion that the QJGS [Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, which later metamorphosed into the Journal of the Geological Society] should be replaced by half a dozen specialists’ journals (of which one should be palaeontological) and of which the subscriptions entitled a Fellow to any two, was rejected without being put to Council as an impractical dream made by innocents with no knowledge of financial matters. When we now see how essentially the same policy has not bankrupted Pergamon, Elsevier and Springer-Verlag, one cannot help regretting that the Society failed to realise that free copy and editorship might be a useful base on which to build a profit-making publishing venture.

However, the upshot of the taxi-ride was a somewhat derisory resolution to ape our betters and start a palaeontological dining club. Bill Ramsbottom, as a central London resident, was asked to find a place at which we could afford to eat, and call upon a few other palaeontologists to do so. He chose the Gardenia Restaurant on Gloucester Road. The proprietor was a polite, foreign gentleman who placed an upper floor at our sole disposal for the evening and generously agreed reasonable corkage for our own wines. Meetings were held after certain meetings of the Geological Society. Frank Hodson acted as recorder and D.J. Carter as wine-steward. [The records of these dinners, of which the first was on 15th December 1954, are available in the archives].

At the sixth dinner, held on 10th October 1956, it was resolved ‘to ask Dr R. G. S. Hudson to dine with the Club and to explain his proposals for the Palaeontologists’ Society’. In fact Hudson had no proposals for such a Society, never having heard of such an organisation, but Ramsbottom and the writer knew that he would by the time he ate his dinner. Even so we left it rather late. Having accepted the invitation to eat with the Club he was told by telephone that Bill and I wanted a few words with him. It was thus that the pair of us called at the offices of the Iraq Petroleum Company on the afternoon of 21st November 1956. We had often discussed the formation of a palaeontological society during our Wednesday meetings, when we could spare the time from goniatites which were the raison d’etre for our meetings. It was clear that we needed someone of senior status but retaining an element of juvenile irresponsibility. Hudson fitted the specification exactly. The dilemma was that we could not expect a sizeable membership without a quality journal but we could not afford a journal without a sizeable membership. What was needed was an established, apparently sober palaeontologist, who would sign an order for a publication on behalf of a Society, long before the Society had funds to pay for it. Hudson we felt would do this and break the vicious circle. There was however, a particularly difficulty – the embryonic proposals required about ten minutes to explain and no one had ever been able to speak to Hudson for ten minutes without him interrupting and taking over the narrative. On one occasion (at the Annual Meeting of the Palaeontographical Society) I seconded a motion proposed by him, only later in the discussion to find him speaking and finally voting against it. Knowing this idiosyncrasy, Bill Ramsbottom volunteered to get him to be quiet for ten minutes and to keep him to it whilst I briefed him on what he had to say in a few hours time.

Bill did a magnificent job, putting his finger to his lips on a number of occasions. Hudson was surprisingly meek. At the conclusion of the diatribe, which had dissected the sins of the Geological Society as seen by the younger palaeontologists and expanded on the subjectively assessed need for a Society and journal devoted solely to exhibiting the virtues of a neglected group of geologists, he merely said ‘Alright’ and launched into a lengthy and rapid exposition of the Middle East Mesozoic stomatoporoids illustrated by prints, enormously enlarged, of cellulose peels of sections which happened currently to be engaging his attention. Characteristic of the times, they were destined to be published in France.

We hurried back to South Kensington to telephone Norman Hughes and Stuart McKerrow at Burlington House where they were attempting to raise the small voice of palaeontology above the scream of grinding axes. They were asked to call at the Geological Survey offices before going on to the Gardenia Restaurant in Gloucester Road. When they eventually arrived at the Survey, they were treated to a repeat performance of that which Hudson had suffered and asked first to nod approvingly at what Hudson would say and secondly, if asked, to accept the job of Vice-President and Treasurer respectively and to agree to Hodson being Secretary and Ramsbottom the Editor. All this agreed, we went to eat. As Hudson rose to speak, we were a bit apprehensive. A busy man, who could forget his own proposal during the short time it was debated, he might well have forgotten his briefing of a few hours ago. But all was well, everything emerged as it had been presented – indeed, quite a chunk of it was verbatim.

On 1st January 1957 a document known as the First Circular was issued and widely distributed amongst palaeontologists and geologists in Great Britain. It outlined proposals for the formation of an Association, and contained an invitation to a Public Meeting to be held in the Royal School of Mines, London, at 5.00pm on 30th January 1957. The response to the Circular was very heartening; slips were returned from over 50% of the 460 copies which had been distributed; over 150 persons signified their firm intention of joining the proposed Association and about 60 others wished the Association well but were unlikely to subscribe.The upshot of the matter was that an Interim Committee was formed, the composition being as follows: Dr R. G. S. Hudson (Chairman), Dr F. Hodson (Secretary), Dr W. S. McKerrow (Treasurer), Dr W. H. C. Ramsbottom (Editor), Mr N. F. Hughes, Dr J. T. Temple and Dr Gwyn Thomas. At a later date, Professor Alwyn Williams was co-opted. A similar account of subsequent proceedings has been printed in Palaeontology, Vol. 1, pt. 4, 1959. The Interim Committee was instructed to consider in detail the ways and means of founding a Palaeontological Association, to obtain estimates of the cost of publishing a new journal, to submit proposals for a constitution, and to call a meeting in January 1957. Virtually unanimous support was received from leading palaeontologists in Britain.

Seventy persons attended the Public Meeting on 30th January 1957, where Dr R. G. S. Hudson, who was in the Chair, outlined the need for a Palaeontological Association. Mr N. F. Hughes, acting as spokesman for the Interim Committee, described the events which had led up to the meeting and explained the proposals which were being put forward. It was announced that a second meeting would be held in the near future formally to inaugurate the Association, adopt a Constitution, elect a Council and empower it to collect subscriptions. A full discussion ensued concerning the name and aims of the proposed Association, its relationships with existing societies, the holding of meetings, the proposed subscription, the financial aspects of establishing a new journal offering adequate illustration, and the format of such a journal. A Resolution proposed by Dr E. I. White FRS, and seconded by Dr F. W. Anderson, ‘that an Association to further the study of Palaeontology be formed’ was carried unanimously. A second Resolution, proposed by Mr R. V. Melville and seconded by Professor O. M. B. Bulman FRS and Mr W. S. Bisat FRS, ‘that Dr F. Hodson, Dr R. G. S. Hudson, Mr N. F. Hughes, Dr W. S. McKerrow, Dr W.H. C. Ramsbottom, Dr J. T. Temple, Dr Gwyn Thomas and Professor Alwyn Williams are elected as an Organising Committee, and are requested to report progress at a meeting to be called in the near future’; also that ‘this Committee has power to co-opt’ was carried unanimously. The writer continued as Secretary.

The Second Circular, distributed on 13th February 1957, reported the resolutions carried at the Public Meeting, and contained an invitation to the Inaugural Meeting of the proposed new Association to be held at 2.30pm on 27th February 1957 in the Royal School of Mines to adopt a Constitution.

At this Inaugural Meeting, attended by 49 persons, the ‘Proposed Constitution’ was discussed in detail. The following people contributed to the discussion from the floor in the order listed: Messrs Eames, Shirley, Westoll, Thomas, Swinton, Wood, Gill, Ramsbottom, Melville, Eames, Melville, Westoll, Sylvester-Bradley, Barnard, Ainsley, Swinton, Sylvester-Bradley, Curry. With some amendments, it was unanimously accepted. The following were then elected as Officers and Council of ‘The Palaeontological Association’ for 1957. President: Dr R. G. S. Hudson, Vice-Presidents: Dr E. I. White, Mr N. F. Hughes, Treasurer: Dr W. S. McKerrow, Editor: Dr W. H. C. Ramsbottom, Secretary: Dr F. Hodson, Fourteen other members of Council: Dr F. W. Anderson, Dr T. Barnard, Professor O. M. B. Bulman, Dr F. E. Eames, Mr G. F. Elliott, Professor T. N. George, Dr Dorothy

H. Rayner, Mr P. C. Sylvester-Bradley, Dr J. T. Temple, Dr Gwyn Thomas, Professor T. S. Westoll, Professor W. F. Whittard, Professor Alwyn Williams, and Professor Alan Wood. It was resolved that the Council be authorised to publish a journal containing works of palaeontological interest, and that the Officers of the Association be authorised to act as an Executive Committee of the Council. The Third Circular gave a report of the Inaugural Meeting and called for subscriptions.

The first Council Meeting was held in the Board Room of the Geological Survey Museum at 11.00am on 1st May 1957. Finance, Publications and Meetings Sub-Committees of the Executive Committee (with powers to co-opt) were established to carry out the business of the Association. Appeals for funds to finance the Association, and particularly its proposed new journal, had already been initiated. It was agreed that the name of the Journal should be ‘Palaeontology’, and that two parts a year should be published initially, that it should be Crown Quarto size, and that it should be printed by the Oxford University Press with collotype plates. Arrangements were made for the first Demonstration Meeting to be held on 29th June at Bedford College, London, and the first Discussion Meeting on Carboniferous palaeontology on 13–14 December at Sheffield.

At the second Council meeting on 29th June 1957, Dr F. Hodson resigned the duties of Secretary of the Association. Item 2a(ii)of the Council minutes reads: ‘Dr Hodson expressed his desire to resign from the post of Secretary due to pressure of other work. The council reluctantly accepted his resignation, and recorded its thanks to Dr Hodson for the services which he had rendered, and also its appreciation of his enthusiasm as one of the founders of the Association. Dr Gwyn Thomas was elected to fill the vacancy, as from 29th June 1957. It was decided that Dr Hodson should remain on the Executive Committee’.

Hodson felt that the embryonic and infant stages of the Association had been successfully accomplished. The membership had reached 191 (185 individual and six institutional members) and there would be enough money in the bank to pay for Volume 1, part 1 of Palaeontology. There were other things to do. Dr Gwyn Thomas guided the Association through its juvenile stage to maturity so that by the end of 1957 membership was over 300, and by the end of 1958 had reached 412, and this less than two years after the inaugural meeting.

The first Anniversary meeting was held at Sheffield University on 13–14 December 1957. Forty­five people sat down to the first Anniversary Dinner ominously held on Friday 13th, and by that date, members had in their possession the first part (published 1st November) of Volume 1 of Palaeontology – probably the finest printed and illustrated scientific publication in the world (subsequently to be exhibited and win an award at the Frankfurt book fair). It had cost £568 and its successors in twenty-five years enriched palaeontological literature with 19,137 pages and 2,661 plates, a ratio of one superb plate to 7.26 pages of OUP print. It is the Association’s biggest asset. How glad we are that we resisted the blandishments of a certain publisher to initiate it for us and let members have it cheaply if institutions could be made to pay through the nose. It was a seductive proposal. Its rejection by the Executive Committee of Council was their wisest decision.

R. G. S. Hudson was decisive. Having no certainty of being able to pay, he unhesitatingly signed an order for it. ‘What happens if we don’t get the cash?’, someone asked. ‘You will have to dig into your pockets’, replied R. G. S. unhesitatingly and with a conviction which showed he believed it. This could not be said about some of his early assurances made to create optimism amongst various people. I used to try to convince myself that he was not really being untruthful, but merely representing a state of affairs as he honestly saw it, a very charitable view; but the Association would not exist but for Hudson’s particular style in getting things moving.

Returning to the Malthusian growth rate in membership in the early years, it was clear that an empty ecological niche had been identified for colonisation. Such growth had eventually to slow down. At the time, it was thought that the carrying capacity (K) of the growth equation might be about 1,000. It is gratifying that 25 years have shown us that this was an underestimate. Perhaps 1,600 is now a better guess, but the initial ‘r’ mode population growth has ended [not a bad estimate in 1982 – the total membership for 2006 was 1,445]. A punctuated equilibrium type of evolution has been succeeded by phyletic gradualism in which we must seek new needs to be catered for. We must do all we can to leave no unfilled wants. If we do, then another competitor will do what we did twenty-five years ago.

Professor Frank Hodson
University of Southampton 1982 

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