Home > Awards > Past Award Winners > Charles "Rufus" Churcher

2006 Honorary Membership Award Recipients

Dr. C S (Rufus) Churcher

Dr. C S (Rufus) Churcher
Photo courtesy of C S Churcher.

My first memories of fossils were of finding sharks' teeth and sea urchin spines and tests in the Cretaceous chalks of the North Downs in Kent, England, when I must have been five or six years old in about 1934. I kept wanting to find a complete skeleton! My next fossil meeting was in 1938/9 with cave faunas in Malta where my father commanded part of the coastal defence during Mussolini's invasion of Albania and Greece. The dwarf elephants and red deer from the cavern of Mnaidra and the underground conduits fascinated me. When World War II broke out in 1939, I was in Long Island visiting my grandparents, but had the good fortune of going to the World's Fair in Flushing Meadows and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). My mother and I rejoined my father in England in September and its wartime restrictions. I remember the silver barrage balloons over Southampton as the S.S. United States docked. Thus I was schooled in the United Kingdom, and spent the war there, growing up British rather than American! Fossils were hard to find as petrol (gasoline) was rationed and all coastal areas were mined or covered in barbed wire, and so unavailable to curious boys.

At the war's end, I took French leave (AWOL) of the RAF and returned to New York with my mother. I then renewed my acquaintance with the AMNH's wondrous exhibits of dinosaurs and extinct mammals. My parents decided to meet up in South Africa and in 1947 I enrolled for a 3-yr science degree at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg (Pmb). While there I became familiar with the basic rock units of the green hills of Natal and Zululand by spending weekends rock climbing, and learned some simple Karroo stratigraphy. In vacations I joined my parents on their farm in Kenya and camped in the bush and tracked game. In 1950, I briefly studied forestry at Oxford University, but 'Hoppice Feet' and 'Petersburg Standards' did not keep my attention, so I switched to geology. However, family matters forced me to return to Kenya. In 1951, my professors at Pmb offered to let me take an Honours fourth year in Zoology, which I accepted. I was persuaded to apply, successfully, for a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research scholarship to do an MSc in vertebrate palaeontology at the Transvaal Museum, Pretoria, under John T. Robinson. I inherited Robert Broom's desk, with sketches of Karroo reptiles on the backs of bills and laundry lists, and the drawers filled with pill boxes from which single tablets had been removed — tried by Broom for effectiveness! My topic was the fossil Hyracoidea or dassies in the Transvaal Caves, with thequid pro quo that I was to be Robinson's preparator. Thus I prepared many fossils, both Pleistocene from the caves and Karroo mammal-like reptiles, with the advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime chance to become familiar with the famous 'Mrs. Ples' and the crested Paranthropus, and the cave breccias, as well as learning considerable anatomy of many vertebrates.

In 1953, with a Masters in my bag, I went via Kenya to the United States. Now, infected by the palaeobug, I approached G.G. Simpson who, surprisingly, accepted me as his student but, because the AMNH was then giving degrees through Columbia University and Columbia would not accept my South African advanced degrees without much repetition, insisting that I repeat my final undergraduate year's courses, I declined their arrangement. Harvard had the same academic reaction. In 1954, while visiting Canadian cousins in Ontario, I tried to study in Toronto with Loris S. Russell, but he had moved to the National Museum of Canada in Ottawa and could not accept students. However, the University of Toronto (U/T) accepted me into a PhD program in mammalogy with my degrees taken at face value. I studied the taxonomy of the red fox in North America under Randolph L. Peterson in the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), from whom I acquired the then up-to-date understanding of mammalian subspecies. I instructed in mammalogy and vertebrate dissection during those years and so learnt the North American fauna both inside and out! Upon graduation, and looking for a position in Australia in dingo control, I was offered a lectureship in zoology at U/T with conditions that outweighed the Aussie offer. T.H. Huxley could turn down U/T, but I did not think I could!

I soon reverted from modern mammals to fossil ones, first being interested in the Toronto regions' Pleistocene Don Valley Beds or the Hamilton Bay deposits. Subsequently the ROM (Vertebrate Palaeontology) acquired a fine collection of tar-seep vertebrates from Talara, Peru and I worked on its dire-wolves, camels, sabre-tooth cats and horses. Loris S. Russell had noted Pleistocene mammal remains in sands and gravels in the Canadian Prairies, and in 1965 suggested to Archibald MacS. Stalker of the Geological Survey of Canada that I could serve as vertebrate palaeontologist to his stratigraphic geologist in a survey of the Quaternary deposits of the western prairies. This resulted in the discovery of the Medicine Hat Buried Valley's multiple tills with sands between, in which were numerous faunas from various interstadial or interglacial beds. Funds became scarcer and so possibilities of field work in that area diminished, but Stalker and I had established that there was a plentiful Pleistocene fossil record in Canada, from the Peace River area through Alberta south of Edmonton and Saskatchewan south of Saskatoon to Fort Qu'Appelle. At this time, 1980, I was asked by Anthony J. Mills of the ROM (Egyptology) to join the Dakhleh Oasis Project (DOP) as its faunal anatomist and palaeontologist, with some geological responsibilities. This has resulted in the stratigraphic description of a vanished 50 by 20 km palaeolake in the Dakhleh Oasis basin, and the description of the Middle Pleistocene Iron Balls palaeofauna of African facies from its deposits. The opportunities to roam over wide areas of sedimentary deposits without hindrance were incredible. I even slipped from the high horse of Quaternary mammals to the Late Cretaceous littoral and marine reptiles and fish of the Tethyean Seaway, and collected many specimens. I am still involved in DOP operations in the field for some 4 to 6 weeks and working up my finds at home: both provide me with a wonderful scientific outlet now that I am no longer at the university.

I consider I have been most fortunate in being able to make a career in a calling that still fascinates me, to have had the facilities and libraries of a first class museum and a renowned university, to have had the joy of invigorating graduate students, and even the pleasures of lecturing to so many inquiring minds and administration for a worthwhile cause, and the resources of many inspiring colleagues. I lectured courses in Comparative Vertebrate and Dental Anatomy, Mammalogy, and Vertebrate Palaeontology among many. I have been able to travel widely and pursue my interests in Smilodon, African and Canadian Quaternary faunas, and, against my better judgement perhaps, an entanglement in equine taxonomy and dental morphology. Add to this, the satisfaction of elucidating obscure aspects of vertebrate palaeontology and function, and I admit that vertebrate palaeontology has given me a most satisfying career.