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William Chaloner
emeritus professor of botany at Royal Holloway, University of London


Although I have been a botanist throughout my professional life, my early interest in science was in the physical sciences. At Kingston Grammar School, I could only pursue physics, chemistry and maths after GCSE level, and by the age of 16 I was much taken with physics and organic chemistry.

I did experiments in physics and organic chemistry, and in astronomy with a small telescope. I made electrical circuits and explosives (acetylene bombs were very popular with my contemporaries), distilled alcohol from meths, and made chloroform and ether using a still with a spirit lamp in my bedroom. From that, I progressed to an interest in the living world.

I was too squeamish to enjoy animal dissection, so that led me into botany. With no biology teaching available at school, I acquired a microscope, and greatly enjoyed sectioning plant material and making microscope slides of all sorts of plant specimens.

Later, after Higher School Certificate in the physical sciences, I went on to study geology and botany at the (then) Chelsea Polytechnic. I think it was in that combination of geology and botany that inspiration came into the story. The idea that the fossil record contained the whole story of plant evolution really fascinated me. A popular book by Marie Stopes entitled Ancient Plants also played a strong role, and the interface between geology and botany became the central theme of my research for the ensuing 60 years.

William Chaloner is coauthor of Global Environmental Change (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and coeditor of Evolution and Extinction (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).