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Professor Peter Crane


Since his appointment in 1999 as Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, Peter Crane has had the opportunity to steer the course of one of the most important world scientific institutions in botany, whose collections amount to the most comprehensive sampling of plant diversity anywhere in the world, along with an unsurpassed collection of botanical art and what is probably the world’s greatest botanical library.

It is easy to see why Peter Crane should have seemed so natural a choice as Director at Kew. He grew up in Kettering and studied botany at the University of Reading, where he gained his PhD in 1981 (incidentally spending some time working in in the Herbarium at Kew during his vacation). His own research was in the then new area of palaeobotany and plant evolution, areas in which he has subsequently published dozens of books and articles. At that time it was thought that plant fossils were extremely rare. Peter Crane pioneered the study of minute, previously unrecognised fossil flowers, large numbers of which have since been discovered at sites all over the world. Their analysis has made it possible for the first time systematically to trace the evolution of the first flowering plants during the Cretaceous period, between 70 and 140 million years ago.

After completing his PhD, Peter Crane spent a year as a post-doctoral scholar in the Department of Biology at Indiana University, moving from there in 1983 to a position of curator in geology at the Field Museum in Chicago. Within nine years, he had risen to become head of the Museum, overseeing all its four academic departments, of botany, geology, zoology, and anthropology, as well as being a Professor in the Department of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. He was a leading force in the establishment of the Field Museum’s Office of Environmental and Conservation Programmes and in the foundation of the Chicago Wilderness Initiative, an umbrella group of more than 200 organisations devoted to plant and animal conservation. In these latter roles, he was able to put to good use his conviction of the importance of making links between academic institutions and their local communities, particularly in relation to matters of conservation. His groundbreaking academic work and his long experience at encouraging the sharing and spreading of knowledge, expertise and resources made him a natural and irresistible successor to Sir Ghillean Prance as Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in August 1999.

Among the most important aspects of his directorship at Kew has been carrying forward the work of the magnificent Millennium Seed Project. This is a global conservation programme conceived and managed by Kew, the aim of which is to collect and conserve seed from threatened plant species, thus making seeds available for research and for reintroduction into the wild. In a sense the Millennium Seed Project is an emergency response, for scientists like Peter Crane estimate that around 30% of all the plants in the world are under threat, with about 25% likely to vanish over the next 50 years. Aware from his own work of the tens of millions of years of evolution that have been needed to produce the diversity of plant life on the planet, Peter Crane feels that to allow this massacre of species to take place over such a short period would be nothing short of a global catastrophe. The Millennium Seed Project represents a kind of insurance policy, a borrowing from nature of its own mechanism for preserving itself intact through hard times – the seed. Officially opening the Wellcome Trust Millennium building at Wakehurst Place in November 2000, the Prince of Wales described its collections as a bank in which the ‘reserve currency’ of life itself could be stored. It has already met its first major objective, which was to collect and conserve seeds of the entire UK native seed-bearing flora: this is the first time that any country has achieved this. It is now focussing its efforts on collecting and conserving seeds from the arid and semi-arid lands which cover a third of the world’s surface, and are most at risk of desertification as a result of intensive human settlement.

It is not only the natural environment itself that is at stake in the conservation of plant diversity. Peter Crane points out in a recent issue of Kew Scientist that 900 million of the poorest people in the world depend heavily on plants for their day-to-day survival, using them for fuel, food, water and health care.

Recently an Electronic Plant Identification Centre has come online which will allow scientists and others direct access to the information Kew holds on plant and fungal diversity, with over 2.7 million records on its 47 databases.2.7 million records.

Another of his initiatives has been to set up a database of the flowering patterns of plants like snowdrops, daffodils and horse-chestnuts in Kew Gardens, enabling the gardens to be used as a giant laboratory to measure the effects of climate change.

His appointment also allows him to make direct contact with the public through special lectures, including one earlier this year which explored the history of the waterlily. The occasion for the lecture was in fact the 150th anniversary of the first flowering at Kew of the giant Victoria amazonica waterlily, whose leaves grow to two metres across and can support the weight of a small child. In his lecture, Professor Crane explored the history and mythology of the plant, which was known to the Egyptians as the lotus. In fact, Kew has in its collections seeds of the so-called blue lotus collected by Howard Carter from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Peter Crane’s interest in waterlilies is more than casual. Last year he was one of a team who reported the discovery of a fossilised flower from this group of planets in the which proves the existence of this group of plants in the earliest phases of the angiosperm fossil record.

Despite the global reach and importance of the work he has led and himself conducted, Peter Crane has always maintained the importance of local experience. Writing that ‘conservation begins at home’, he has observed that, although, with only 1400 species of seed plants, the UK may seem to compare poorly to areas of rich diversity like Amazonia, our country is one in which most people live within reach of some kind of natural area, given us an unprecedented opportunity for enhancing the awareness and practice of conservation. One of the ideas he floated early in his appointment was to let children and their parents stay overnight in the pavilion to experience for themselves the nocturnal wildlife, foxes, bats, kingfishers and woodpeckers, of the Gardens. I am not sure whether this idea has turned out to be possible, but it is a sign of the passionate commitment that Peter Crane has to extending the experience of natural diversity to as wide a public as possible.

Honours and awards have come his way in abundance. In 2001, he was elected a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest forms of recognition in US science for a scientist working outside the country. This was followed a year later by election to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.  His many awards include the Bicentenary Medal of the Linnean Society of London and the Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society, the Henry Allan Gleason Award of the New York Botanical Garden and the Hutchinson Medal of the Chicago Botanical Garden. 

In 1998, Professor Crane was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, an appointment which has enabled him to take an even more leading national and international role in getting plant conservation on to the political agenda. It was announced earlier this year that he is to chair a special working group of the Royal Society to study biodiversity loss.

Anyone whose perspective encompasses over a hundred million years of plant evolution is used to seeing the big picture, and this has certainly been in evidence at Kew since his arrival. Peter Crane believes that increasing specialism of scientific research must be balanced by the powers of the generalist. For the conservation botanist, this means particularly the skills of plant identification that come from the sort of experience in classifying and curating the  large variety of plants at Kew. One of his first jobs on arriving at Kew was to encourage the development of a synergistic approach that would de-emphasise the work of individual departments and strengthen collaboration around the most important scientific themes of the institution. His aim, he has written, is to place a still greater range of skills at the disposal of its users and partners and, as he has put it, ‘to ensure that we continue to have scientists on Kew’s staff who can truly see the wood for the trees’. Having promised myself not to make any jokes about hothouses of scientific endeavour, I am pleased that this metaphor should have sprung from Peter Crane’s own pen.

Partnerships are at the heart of Kew’s ethos and organisation, and it works closely with the Department of the Environment, and with scientists and land policy developers al over the world. We are proud to have links ourselves to Kew in our School of Biological Sciences, with the work of Martin Ingrouille on historical ecology of David Havill on plant ecology and Andrew Milner on amphibian systematics.  These links have been enhanced and consolidated by the recent appointment of Paul Bridge, Professor of Mycology, a post is jointly funded between Kew and Birkbeck, and whose appointment has opened exciting new possibilities of research on fungal genetics and systematics.

For his pioneering contributions as a scientist, and his role in the vital task of educating the public about the importance of plants and fungi for sustaining life on earth, and in the light of the very special relationship between our two institutions, we honour Peter Crane today. It is a great pleasure and a privilege to be able to welcome him now as a Fellow of Birkbeck College.