1937-1966: Walter F. Whittard

Geologist and palaeontologist who focused on the early Palaeozoic geology of Shropshire, and diverse geological questions around Bristol

Walter Frederick Whittard (1902–1966) was professor of geology at Bristol for nearly twenty years, and died in the job. He had been born in Battersea, London, where he was educated. He attended classes in geology at Chelsea College, and then graduated in geology and zoology from Imperial College London in 1924, having studied vertebrate palaeontology with D.M.S. Watson. He continued to earn his PhD in 1926 at Imperial College for a study of the Lower Silurian of Shropshire. He spent time in Cambridge, continuing his research.

Whittard was appointed Assistant Lecturer in Geology at Imperial College in 1931, and then Lecturer in 1935, responsible for teaching all the palaeontology courses. He moved to Bristol to take up the Chaning Wills Chair in Geology as successor to Arthur Trueman as Head of Department at the early age of 35.

Whittard worked on a wide range of geological and palaeontological topics, including his first studies of the palaeontology and stratigraphy of the Silurian of Shropshire (Whittard 1925, 1928, 1932), which extended to explore the wider geology of the Precambrian and Lower Palaeozoic of that county. His love of Shropshire geology meant that he led many student field trips there.

Whittard worked on a broad range of palaeontological topics, including some studies of Carboniferous amphibians (e.g. Whittard and Bulman 1926) while still a student in London. But most of his palaeontological work focused on the trilobites (Whittard 1938) and brachiopods (Whittard and Barker 1950) of the Silurian of Shropshire. After several shorter papers on the Ordovician invertebrate faunas of Shropshire, Whittard (1955-1966) wrote the definitive monograph on the 120 species of Ordovician trilobites of that county. In these palaeontological works, he relied extensively on photography. At Bristol, he found E. W. Seavill on the technical staff and he became an exceptionally skilled photographer. Further, he was massively assisted in completing the Ordovician monograph thanks to the dedicated fossil collecting expeditions by Tom Fry who collected most of the specimens.

While at Bristol, Whittard wrote many short papers about the geology of the area, including descriptions of boreholes, and a general overview of the city and surroundings (MacInnes and Whittard 1955). With several colleagues from the Department of Geology, he led a series of papers about the offshore geology of the Bristol Channel (e.g. Whittard 1962). Dennis Curry, quoted by Bulman (1966) reported, “‘The programme of operations has included two cruises a year—a week in June and a fortnight or so in September—mostly in the research vessel of the Marine Biological Association, R.V. Sarsia.. Whittard was an indifferent sailor, but he didn’t allow this fact to interfere with his work and on a number of occasions I have worked alongside him when he was obviously ill and should have been resting in his bunk. Weather permitting, cruises under him were very enjoyable; everybody was expected to be on Christian name terms, with the exception of himself, whom his staff (comprising most of his seagoing colleagues) addressed naturally as “Prof”. He was a good organizer and supervised carefully the keeping of records relating to the work.”

While Head of Department in Bristol, Whittard also served as Dean of Science from 1945-1948, and oversaw a considerable expansion in the numbers of academic and technical staff and the establishment of new facilities in the basement of the Queen’s Building which mainly housed the Faculty of Engineering.

Whittard was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1957, and received the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1965.

Read more

Bulman, O.M.B. 1966. Walter Frederick Whittard 1902-1966. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 12, 531–542. Read this obituary here.

MacInnes, C.M. and Whittard, W.F. 1955. Bristol and its Adjoining Counties. British Association for the Advancement of Science, Bristol, 355 pp.

Whittard, W.F. 1925. Notes on Valentian rocks in Shropshire. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 36, 378-381.

Whittard, W.F. 1928. The stratigraphy of the Valentian Rocks of Shropshire: the main outcrop. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London 83, 739-759.

Whittard, W.F. 1932. The stratigraphy of the Valentian Rocks of Shropshire: the Longmynd Shelve and Breidden Outcrops. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, London 88, 859-902.

Whittard, W.F. 1938. The Upper Valentian trilobite fauna of Shropshire. Annals and Magazine of Natural History (11) 1, 85-140.

Whittard, W.F. 1955-1966. The Ordovician trilobites of the Shelve Inlier, West Shropshire. Palaeontographical Society Monograph, Parts I-VIII, 1-306, with 50 pls.

Whittard, W.F. 1962. Geology of western approaches of the English Channel: a progress report. Proceedings of the Royal Society, Series A 265, 395-406.

Whittard, W.F. and Barker, G.H. 1950. The Upper Valentian brachiopod fauna of Shropshire. Annals and Magazine of Natural History (12) 11, 553-90.

Whittard, W.F. and Bulman, O.M.B. 1926. On Branchiosaurus and allied genera (Amphibia). Proceedings of the Zoological Society 36, 533-579.