Alec Leonard Panchen 1930-2013

November 5, 2013
Alec Leonard Panchen died on 17th January 2013 after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. He was a long-standing member of SVP and was elected an Honorary Member in 1999. Alec laid the modern foundations of the study of Palaeozoic tetrapods in the UK and supervised, supported and encouraged a new generation of vertebrate palaeontologists at the start of their careers.

Alec was born on 4th October 1930 in the City of London. He attended Selwyn College, University of Cambridge where he graduated with a B.A. in Zoology in 1953. He moved straight on to a Ph.D., supervised by Rex Parrington and, in 1957, defended his thesis on a new heavily armoured Permian temnospondyl amphibian collected by Parrington from the Ruhuhu Valley in Tanzania. Alec named it Peltobatrachus pustulatus and although its phylogenetic position has shifted in recent years, the original description still stands.

Alec stepped on the first rung of the academic career ladder as a Demonstrator in the Department of Zoology in the then King's College, University of Durham in 1956. He became Lecturer in Vertebrate Zoology in King's College in 1960 which, in 1963, became University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was promoted to Reader in Vertebrate Zoology in 1972, a position he held until his retirement in 1993. The rich Coal Measure collections in the Hancock Museum of Newcastle University provided Alec with a wealth of opportunity for revision of some of the tetrapods which had lain neglected since the 1920s. Following compilation of a review of British Coal Measure early tetrapod localities with Alick Walker (1961), he took up a Senior Fulbright Scholarship and a temporary Assistant Professorship of Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio, in 1963-64, on an exchange year with John Chase. He then embarked on a series of detailed monographic revisions of British Carboniferous amphibians, experimenting with various new chemical and mechanical means to remove all of the matrix to reveal detailed anatomical features far beyond those available to his predecessors. The industrial Airbrasive proved to be the most appropriate device for exposing the bone of British Coal Measure amphibians, and Alec and his students used this for many years to work their way through much of the British Coal Measure material. The first major paper in this series, on the anthracosaurs Palaeogyrinus and Eogyrinus (1964) was followed by a monograph on anthracosaurs in the Handbuch der Palaoherpetologie series (1970), and further detailed redescriptions of several other primitive tetrapods including Eogrinus (1972), Pholidogaster and Eoherpeton (1975) and Anthracosaurus (1977). The meticulous illustrations in all these publications are by Alec's own hand and set the benchmark for clear and detailed illustration of complex fossil material that his research students have since struggled to match. Alec was able to employ Stan Wood as a collector/preparator on a grant from 1976 to 1979, which helped Stan to establish his own career and credentials which led to the discovery of several important Carboniferous localities in Scotland, notably the Cowdenbeath opencast site, the Bearsden fish locality and the East Kirkton tetrapod locality. These provided a swathe of new research material for Alec and his later research students through the 1980s.

Developing from an early interest in collecting butterflies, Alec was also a competent field naturalist and he brought this long-standing interest in Lepidoptera to his teaching and research. A collecting trip to Corsica with his son Matthew resulted in papers on clinal polymorphism in butterflies and a further trip to Kenya and Tanzania in the same year generated papers on aspects of the ecology and genetics of danaid butterflies. This work continued through the 1970s, and in 1978, he was a member of the Royal Geographical Society Mulu Expedition to Sarawak, carrying out further research on mimicry and behaviour in rain-forest butterflies.

Alec was an inspiring and enthusiastic teacher. His lectures were always thoroughly prepared, engaging and challenging. As well as his final year course on vertebrate evolution, he gave lectures on genetics, human origins and evolutionary theory in which he took particular interest. His thoughts and arguments on evolution, patterns of classification and patterns of phylogeny, and the logic of evolutionary theory set against a review of the history of the philosophy of science, came
together in his book Classification, evolution and the nature of biology (1992). This book presents a thought-provoking and detailed alternative to pattern cladistics, the classifications based upon it and whether they provide evidence for evolution. In all, he supervised 10 PhD students, whose topics ranged from Palaeozoic fishes and Carboniferous tetrapods to marine reptiles and butterfly genetics. Most were able to contribute to his Festchrift published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society in 1998. This includes a comprehensive synopsis of Alec’s career by Andrew and Angela Milner and a complete bibliography of his publications to that date.