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2007 Honorary Membership Award Recipients

Chris McGowan

Chris McGowan
Photo courtesy of Chris McGowan.

I was born in Kent, England, toward the end of the war, and grew up during the days of ration books and coal fires.  Not the most brilliant pupil at junior school, I failed my 11-plus exam, freeing a place at the local grammar school for a worthier pupil.  But the schools I attended had good teachers, and I became completely turned on to science.  For amusement, I built things and conducted experiments.  My interests included chemistry, model aircraft, building rockets (which more often exploded than flew), boiling up bones to study osteology, and natural history.

In 1962, I enrolled at one of the lesser seats of learning in London to read for a BSc degree in zoology.  Becoming interested in vertebrates during my final year, I purchased a copy of Romer'sVertebrate Paleontology.  I was hooked.  After graduating in 1965 I married Liz, the most important person in my life.  I was offered a place at University College London, but we couldn’t afford to live on a graduate student's stipend, so I became a full-time high-school teacher instead.  I loved teaching, but didn't want to stay at school forever. 

Birkbeck College (London University) offered part-time places for higher degrees, and I knew that John Attridge taught there. Fortunately, he was prepared to take me on as a graduate student, and I enrolled in January, 1966.   My thesis topic was determined by the availability of suitable material in the Natural History Museum: the choice between ichthyosaurs and Pleistocene pigs was an easy one. John was the best supervisor, mentor and friend I could ever want.  I received my PhD three years later, while still teaching full-time.  Jobs for paleontologists were as scarce then as they are now and, after writing dozens of letters all over the world, I received an offer from the Royal Ontario Museum.  So, in the summer of '69, Liz and I set sail aboard the Empress of Canada, accompanied by our two small daughters.  With just £300 between us, we never expected to see England again.

In order to continue teaching, I obtained a cross-appointment to the Department of Zoology at the University of Toronto.  After teaching various introductory courses, I developed a hands-on functional morphology course.  I also taught a marine biology field course in New Brunswick most summers.  Then there were the graduate students.  I’ve not had many—largely because of my concerns for jobs—but they've all been outstanding.  We enjoyed the same relationship that I had with John, and one of my greatest joys has been watching their careers, and their lives, unfold.   

I took early retirement from the ROM at the end of 2002, and my last student obtained his PhD two years later.  Having enjoyed more than thirty years as a paleontologist—the best job I can imagine having—I'm happy doing other things.  Liz and I delight in our five grandchildren, and most of my spare time is spent writing.  I've also been doing some radio broadcasts, on various aspects of the Industrial Revolution.  But VP is still on the agenda, and I've recently written two children's books on dinosaurs.

Attending SVP meetings was always a highlight of my academic years, not only for the intellectual stimulation, but also for the good chums I've made and the great times we've had together.  My first meeting was at the AMNH, in 1969, where I met Peter Dodson, a kindred spirit with whom I became firm friends. Back then, there were precious few dinosaur papers, let alone anything ichthyosaurian, but times have changed, and for the better.  Thanks in large measure to the younger generation of paleontologists, our discipline, and Society, are in robust health.  I am privileged and deeply touched to be made an Honorary Member of such a vibrant and nurturing association.