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Percy Butler passing

February 10, 2015

Prof. Percy M. Butler, mammalian odontologist and paleontologist, passed away on the 7th February 2015 at the age of 102. He graduated and gained his PhD from Pembroke College, Cambridge, where his doctoral supervisor was Clive Forster Cooper. Most of his career was spent at Royal Holloway, University of London (after stints in Exeter, Manchester and the USA) and he had a long association with the Natural History Museum, London, which he visited frequently from 1933 onwards. He received the prestigious lifetime achievement award of the Romer-Simpson Medal from SVP in 1996.


Percy had a remarkably long and fruitful scientific career with a publication record beginning in 1937 and continuing until the present day, with two co-authored papers still in progress at the time of his death. Early in his career, he drew a number of critical conclusions about teeth, including cusp homology, eruption pattern and the process of mastication studied by observing wear facets. These fundamentals, which we take for granted today, were still the subject of controversy in the 1930s. He is famous for his field theory, which proposed that dental characters are expressed, not separately on each individual tooth, but in morphogenetic gradients along the dentition, which could therefore be regarded as a metamerically arranged organ. He developed these ideas throughout his career, applying the study of modern mammal teeth and their ontogeny to understanding the evolution and dietary function of fossil mammals, especially those of the Mesozoic. In the process, he has positively influenced countless numbers and several generations of paleomammalogists. Percy was a friendly unassuming person, always willing to share his extensive knowledge with anyone with an interest in the subject and will be greatly missed by his colleagues in the UK and elsewhere.