The Prescotian Webzine

Professor Alan Morton (1910-2003)
ALAN GILBERT MORTON was born on 12th March 1910 in Prescot, of Manchester parents. Prescot was in those days a rural area, despite its proximity to Liverpool, and he always considered himself a Lancashire man. His interest in botany was first stimulated by the woods and fields of a local farm, and by neighbouring mosses, waste heaps, lanes and ponds, where he spent all his leisure hours.

He began his education at a dame school, having been taught to read by an aunt, and attended Prescot Grammar School (1918 to 1927). Botany at Higher School Certificate was not provided for in the school curriculum, but when he specialised in science in the sixth form, his headmaster, Mr C W H Richardson (known as ‘Dick’), was foresighted enough to make it possible for him to study botany to this level. Alan was always grateful to him and to his French master, Mr Whitby, who taught him German out of school hours.

From 1927–1931, he attended Liverpool University where he gained a B.Sc. in Botany before spending a year there as a research assistant, working on tannin metabolism in Epilobium hirsutum. In the autumn and winter of 1931–32, he attended the Institut fur Auslander in Berlin, perfecting his knowledge of German and laying the foundation of a lifelong love of German literature, both botanical and classical, and a particular appreciation of Goethe’s works.

From 1932–33 he did some botany teaching to pharmacy and horticultural students at the Liverpool Technical College, before going to the University of Cambridge (1933–36), where he did research on carbohydrate metabolism in ivy leaves under the supervision of E. J. Maskell, which he presented as his Ph.D. thesis in 1937. A second visit to Berlin in 1933 showed him the horrors of rising Nazism and on one occasion he heard Goebbels speak. He had Jewish friends in Germany, but after the war never heard of them and could guess only too well what had happened to them.

From 1937–40, he was appointed Research Assistant to Professor W. Neilson Jones at Bedford College, London University, with an Agricultural Research Council Grant, and here he studied the effect of soil conditions on tree growth in heath soils. This work provided what was probably the first demonstration of the occurrence of mycostasis in soils and its removal by manurial treatment (see Journal of Agricultural Science 31, 379 (1941)). During 1937–39, he also studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic, as it then was, taking an inter-BA in German and Russian, where he gained the class medal in Russian for two years running.

Other posts followed as research and advisory worker in the biological laboratories of Lever Bros and Unilever Ltd, Port Sunlight, Cheshire; then, secondment to the Scientific Adviser’s staff in Dehydration Division, Ministry of Food, returning at the end of the war to Lever Bros and Unilever.

In 1943, he married Freda Mary Clayton, a teacher from Doncaster whom he met in Cambridge and who had volunteered to remain in London throughout the war to work in a Jewish rest centre. One of his worse memories of that time was of going to her home in London to find it in ruins after a German air raid and, to his last days, he maintained that all aerial bombardment was a crime against humanity. Freda unfortunately predeceased him in 1987.

From 1946–47 he worked in the Botany Department of Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, on laboratory and field studies of the physiology of leaf-growth in crop plants (published in Annals of Botany), before being appointed Head of the Plant Physiology Laboratory at Akers Research Laboratories (ICI), The Frythe, Welwyn, Hertfordshire, in 1947. Here he engaged in research on the nitrogen metabolism, enzymology and development of fungi. As well as this, he gave unofficial German and Russian classes to his younger colleagues in the lunch hours. In 1946 also, he and his long-standing friend, Desmond Greaves, published a joint volume of their poems, By the Clock ‘Tis Day.

He delighted in how new ideas were founded, developed and evolved, and had a lifelong interest in left-wing philosophy, visiting colleagues at the University of Greifswald in the then German Democratic Republic, also taking part in the first scientific delegation from the UK to the Soviet Union. This led to a book on Soviet genetics, outlining Lysenko’s ideas. When Lysenko was exposed as a fraud, who had not allowed full access to his data, Alan could only think of Darwin’s words, which he had used to preface the book – “Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure”. For many years he was on the board of Marx House and on the committee of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR.

In 1963, he was appointed Reader and Head of the Botany Department at Chelsea College of Science and Technology, becoming Professor of Botany in 1966 when Chelsea became a constituent college of London University. In 1970, he became a Fellow of the Institute of Biology; in 1971, Senior Editor of the Transactions of the British Mycological Society, having acted as Associate Editor from 1967. When he retired from Chelsea in 1973, he was given the title of Emeritus Professor.

At this point, he left St Albans, Hertfordshire, where he had lived for many years, to move to Edinburgh. There he devoted his time to editing the TBMS; to writing a History of Botanical Science (1981) with the help of a Leverhulme Research Fellowship, his Marginalia to Andrea Cesalpino’s work on Botany (Archives of Natural History 10, 31–36) (1981), and John Hope 1725–1786, Scottish Botanist (1986), a biography produced for the bicentenary of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. He joined forces with the late Dr Mary Noble to contribute a chapter on Botany and Mycology [in Scotland 1783–1983] for a special issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (84B). His mastery of languages led Professor Robert Kuhner of Lyon, one of France’s greatest agaricologists, to ask Alan and Professor Roy Watling to summarise and translate into English Kuhner’s great opus, and this appeared in 1980. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1981.

He also devoted time to translating poems of the Austrian poet Lenau, to his own poetical compositions and to study of classical philosophy in the original – when writing his History of Botanical Science, he read his sources, be it Theophrastus or Cesalpino, in their original languages to avoid perpetrating existing mistakes in translation. The loss of his ‘botanical eye’, because of glaucoma and retinal deterioration, was a great sadness during his last years but he continued to experiment with plants, to research the minutiae of botanical history, and to read philosophy. He also maintained his great love of English literature, and particularly of Wordsworth’s poetry, and his interest in current affairs, voting in every election and supporting devolution in his adoptive country.

He died on 19th March 2003, after a short illness, leaving three children, John, David and Alisoun, and five grandchildren.

Alisoun Morton

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