Obituary: Professor Charles Henry Gimingham OBE, FRSE, botanist, plant scientist, ecologist and conservationist

Prof Charles Gimingham
Prof Charles Gimingham
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Charles Henry Gimingham OBE FRSE, Emeritus Professor of Plant Science. Born: 28 April, 1923 in Leamington Spa. Died: 19 June, 2018 in Milltimber, Aberdeen, aged 95

Charles Gimingham was a globally renowned ecologist and conservationist whose interest in natural history was in his DNA.

Although once described by Magnus Magnusson as a “living legend”, he had a rather more pragmatic and humble view of his career, attributing his enthusiasm for his subject to his father Conrad, an entomologist and director of the Plant Pathology Laboratory at the Ministry of Agriculture.

The excellent opportunities he enjoyed during his education at Gresham’s School in Norfolk also played a part and helped him to earn an Open scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he studied during the Second World War, graduating with a first class BA degree in 1944.

He had opted for Botany in the final year of his Natural Science course and went on to spend a year as a research assistant at the University of London’s Imperial College before moving to Aberdeen where he remained for all his academic career, becoming Regius Professor of Botany.

He joined Aberdeen University’s Department of Botany, now known as Plant Science, in 1945 and while his main interest had always been in ecology, as a young academic he had to turn his hand to lecturing on other topics, including plant anatomy and agricultural botany, while contributing to first year courses – an invaluable apprenticeship, he said.

Gimingham, who completed his PhD in 1948, also married his wife Caroline that year and began rising through the ranks. Ecology was then in its infancy and developing field-based teaching was key to promoting the subject. There were residential field courses at locations including St Cyrus on the east coast, Perthshire and Edzell, until the department secured its own field studies centre in Sutherland, plus overseas visits. Gimingham was instrumental in the setting up of an MSc course in the subject.

His own research interests were initially quite wide, involving studies of sand dunes, salt marshes and bryophyte ecology which included the study of mosses. But he soon began to focus on the area that would bring him to international prominence: heather, heathlands and moorlands. The importance of heather in the Aberdeen area had first been highlighted to him by one of his Cambridge lecturers and he now became interested in the role of heather (Calluna vulgaris) in the economy of the Scottish uplands and its management by burning and grazing – something that greatly concerned land managers, agriculturists, foresters and conservationists. He pioneered an early leaflet on heather burning and developed expert guidance enshrined in legislation governing the practice, now known as The Muirburn Code.

Meanwhile he became a senior lecturer in 1961, then reader in 1964 and was awarded a personal chair in 1969, going on to produce publications including Ecology of Heathlands in 1972 which became standard text and an Introduction to Heathland Ecology in 1975. His appointment as Regius Professor came in 1981 and during his tenure he served as president of the British Ecological Society and of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh.

During his long and distinguished career in Aberdeen he spent six months’ leave of absence based in Stockholm and toured remaining remnants of heathlands in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and northern Germany. Later, following a joint meeting of the British and French Ecological Societies in Brittany, he helped to establish a European Heathland Workshop where research into heathland management and conservation continues.

He also visited areas across the world including the Libyan coast and desert where he met King Idris, the Antarctic and Japan, all of which contributed to his involvement and huge influence in nature conservation. He worked with the Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage and was a member of the Countryside Commission for Scotland for more than a decade.

In Aberdeenshire he served on Scottish National Trust’s Mar Lodge Management Committee, SNH’s Forvie National Nature Reserve Advisory Panel and Aberdeen’s Scotstown Moor Local Nature Reserve Committee. And while living in the Granite City he developed what he described as a lifelong interest and delight in the Cairngorms, encompassing membership of the Cairngorm Club and editing the book, The Ecology, Land Use and Conservation of the Cairngorms, published in 2002.

Highly respected internationally, his work resulted in various honours: Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and of the Institute of Biology; a DSc from Cambridge University and the OBE in 1990. He was also a founding fellow of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland and patron of the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management which awarded him its IEEM Medal in 2008.

Never one afraid to get his hands dirty in a peatbog, he was always a practical and approachable academic who truly appreciated the marvels of our natural environment and who was, in turn, greatly appreciated by his students and peers. Not only did Magnus Magnusson, founder chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage describe him as a legend in the foreword of a book celebrating his work, at one point his students and research staff took to donning T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Prof Gim Rules OK”.

Throughout his career he regarded the teaching and support of students to be as important as his research and his legacy will live on in the many ecologists worldwide whom he taught and who, in turn, taught others.

It had been an enormous privilege, he said, to be able to spend his working life among such “amazing, diverse and beautiful surroundings as plant communities and natural landscapes in the company of so many kind and encouraging colleagues and friends, and especially my wife and family.”

A thanksgiving service for Prof Gimingham, who is survived by his wife Caroline, daughters Alison, Anne and Clare and extended family, will be held on 13 July at Aberdeen’s St Machar’s Cathedral, where he was the longest-
serving elder.

ALISON SHAW