Botanist and lecturer
Born: 5 February, 1941, in Halesowen
Died: 14 January, 2004, in Redditch, aged 62
PHILIP Smith was a botanist of international stature, who was admired at the University of Edinburgh as an inspirational teacher, a sympathetic counsellor and director of studies, an effective administrator and a real team-player.
His father died shortly after he was born, and he was brought up by his mother and her parents. His early interest in natural history was initiated by his grandfather, who was a keen fisherman. In his boyhood years, Philip explored the countryside with a young friend, collecting all manner of objects - stones, rabbit skulls, birds, fish, worms, eggs, leeches, lizards, frogs, molluscs, insects, animal droppings and, above all, plants. These were set out, labelled and exhibited in the garden shed that was founded as their "Naturlist Club" (sic).
He attended Halesowen Grammar School and went on to graduate from Birmingham University with a 1st class honours BSc in botany in 1962, obtaining his PhD in 1965.
The previous year, he and Eira Morgans - his biology teacher in his final two years at school - were married, he adopting her surname as his middle name, and together they went on a Harkness Fellowship to study at University of California, Davis. He was then appointed assistant lecturer in the botany department at the University of Edinburgh in 1967, and became a senior lecturer in 1981.
He did his utmost to stimulate and nurture a wider interest in plants at a time when the organism-based approach in biology was unfashionable. He taught in all four years of the courses in biological sciences at university, plus the diploma in taxonomy and later the MSc course in biodiversity and taxonomy of plants based at the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. The MSc course was his creation, and has become the European, probably the world, market leader.
Philip lectured with flair and style and on occasion was applauded by first-year students. His success in lecturing was the result of a complete synthesis of his wide interest in botany and his love of literature, together with his good baritone voice and perceptive wit. He had a remarkable ability to quote extensively from his favourite authors such as Dylan Thomas and AE Housman, and was a great mimic, especially of the speeches of Churchill.
Philip’s outstanding contribution and dedication to teaching were acknowledged by the School of Biological Sciences when he was nominated in 2003 for the chancellor’s award for excellence in teaching. He was described by his head of school as "the most outstanding teacher we have. He has the highest teaching loads in the school and consistently gets ratings from students which the rest of us can only aspire to achieve".
Philip also made important external contributions to biological education, notably as a member of the Scottish Schools Examination Board. He was, at times, convener and moderator for CSYS biology; a member of the Scottish Central Committee on Science, and a scrutineer for ten years from 1990. In 1996, he was consultant principal examiner in sciences, Jordan Examination Reform Project, and he served on the council of the Botanical Society of Scotland for many years, and as its president from 1989 to 1991.
Philip supervised 16 research students and they, together with his MSc students have contributed to the spread of broad taxonomic principles around the world. His own research, from which he was distracted by a frequently oppressive workload, was mainly concerned with the grass genus bromus, on which he was the world authority.
He was one of the first to use serological techniques to distinguish between species in the study of their relationships. His book Chemotaxonomy of Plants (1976) proved valuable in advanced taxonomic courses. As a student, he had collected data for the first computerised list of local flora in Warwickshire, and over the past 20 years he galvanised members of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh into collecting data for a flora of the Lothians. Philip wrote several chapters of the resulting book, Plant Life of Edinburgh and the Lothians, which was published in 2002 by Edinburgh University Press. It stands as a testament to his vision, energy and powers of persuasion.
In recent years, Philip spent much of his free time on his narrow boat, cruising along the canals of the English Midlands, a part of the world for which he forever had affection. He was very sociable and liked to discuss a wide range of topics over a pint or two at any local hostelry. On field courses, it was not long before he was leading the singing after a hard day. Everyone - students, colleagues and acquaintances alike - will remember him as a good and convivial friend, never happier than, over a glass of beer, discussing any subject under the sun, with perhaps forthright views but never a hint of rancour and always with much humour, frequently at his own expense.
There will be many times when we will be reminded of our encounters with Philip. It is sad that he has been cheated out of his well-earned retirement. He will be sorely missed but also remembered fondly, and with gratitude, by hundreds of students all over the world and by many others in the wider botanical community.
He is survived by Eira and his sons, Mansel and Llewellyn.