Professor Christopher Donald Pigott
Director of University Botanic Garden, Cambridge 1984 – 1995
Professorial, now Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College
Emeritus Professor of Biology, University of Lancaster
Visiting Professor, University of Witswatersrand, Johannesburg
Professor of Biology and Head of Department, University of Lancaster
Lecturer in Botany, University of Cambridge
Lecturer in Botany, University of Sheffield
Plant Ecologist and Physiologist, Taxonomist, Arborist, Conservationist, Author, Lecturer
Interests Cyto-taxonomy of thymes and lime-trees, experimental plant ecology (mineral nutrition and soils; woodlands) and plant geography (climatic factors), vegetation of the Pennines and Lake District, taxonomy, ecology and biology of lime-trees.
Donald Pigott came up to Cambridge as an undergraduate in 1946. He was one of the small proportion of school leavers (mostly girls) to go to university immediately after WWII, and found himself amongst ex-servicemen and women who were adjusting to civilian life after military service. Systematic botany was taught in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden by its Director, Humphrey Gilbert-Carter (1921 – 1950). One of Pigott’s demonstrators in the Botany School and a future Director of the Garden, Max Walters, noticed his enthusiasm, not only for wild plants of which he knew the names, but for botanical drawing as well: they became good friends and often made joint excursions. Voices from the 1980s Subsequently Walters encouraged Pigott to follow his example and spend the long-vacation of 1949 in Upsala and Helsinki universities, where he was inspired by Professor Hultén’s atlas of distribution of the Fenno-Scandian flora. This led him and Walters, and later Franklyn Perring, working together on the mapping of the Flora for the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI). It was partly Pigott’s ‘dot’ maps of thymes for his Ph.D. thesis that convinced the BSBI that it was feasible to make similar maps for an Atlas of the British Flora. Voices from the 1960s
Limestone Ecological Mound As research students, Donald Pigott and David Coombe were asked by Professor Sir Harry Godwin, the distinguished plant ecologist and pioneering palaeobotanist, to assist with the design of the Botanic Garden’s ecological mound, the choice of native plants to be planted on it and, together with Max Walters, their collection from the wild. Voices from the 1960s
Donald Pigott and David Coombe had ‘phenomenal knowledge’ of the flora of the British Isles. Professor Richard West
Recalling when in 1984 he succeeded Max Walters as Director of the Botanic Garden, Donald Pigott (left) said “I inherited a very healthy Garden with two excellent senior staff, Peter Orriss (centre) and Norman Villis (right), both whom knew the Garden very well.” Shortly after Donald Pigott took up the post, a gale – and then the Great Storm of 1987 – blew down many trees, including some of the original planting of the Garden in 1846, known as ‘foundation trees’. Donald Pigott and his colleagues – including Peter Kerley, then Garden arborist – almost welcomed the challenge of planting new ones. Another task was to renovate the Ecological Mound, which was in need of refreshing after twenty years. In this task, Donald Pigott was greatly assisted by his wife, Sheila, a graduate in botany of Girton.
Botanic Garden Review In 1990, the University conducted a five-year review of the Botanic Garden to assess ‘future funding, management and constitutional position of the Botanic Garden.‘ The review stated that: ‘Although the Garden constitutes an important scientific and historical asset of which the University is custodian, its importance for teaching and research has declined as work at the molecular or cellular level has become increasingly prominent in plant sciences.’ In other words, the changes in emphasis in scientific enquiry from whole plant botany to molecular biology meant that the University was reassessing its future relationship with the Garden. It had been suggested that, following the retirement of Donald Pigott in 1995, the Botanic Garden would in essence become a park, thus losing much of its scientific and research status.
Professor Pigott vigorously defended the Botanic Garden’s status as a local, national and international institution and convinced the Review that correctly named wild-collected plants and crop plants were still essential ‘raw material’ for molecular research and the Garden should most certainly be retained. Donald Pigott said that he had acted to increase the financial assets of the Garden and introduced charges for entrance, so that the University shouldn’t close it down on the grounds that it was too expensive, and he won the battle that it should not become a park for the city called the Botanic Garden in name only. He had with Jill Free and research students used the Cory Laboratory for research, leading to several publications. He then said: ‘I was delighted when I heard that they had appointed an academic director again who was going to grow plants for his own research in the Garden, and I hope that will go on even now.’ Voices from the 1990s
The 1995 Review concluded that: ‘The Board are clear that the provision of support for the Garden from general funds is dependent on the Garden having a continuing, and preferably increased involvement in the University’s academic work and programme of education.’ The Garden would remain a sub-department of the Department of Plant Sciences, nevertheless it was tasked with making stronger links with university departments.
1952 Republic of Ireland – mapping project for Atlas of Flora
1964 – 1970 Uganda – regular visits to for supervision of research on grasslands, linked to Makerere and the International Biological Programme, funded by the Royal Society.
1973 Poland – research in the Białowieża forest, funded by the Royal Society and Polish Academy of Sciences
1978 USA – Invited visit to Ann Arbor University in Michigan, followed by the International Phyto-geographical Excursion to North and South Carolina based at Chapel Hill University
1974 Hungary – Vácrátót Botanical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
1983 Soviet Union – Royal Society and Soviet Academy of Science, ecological study of deciduous, broad-leaved woodlands in western Russia and Ukraine. Garden of Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, Kiev to study species of Tilia from Caucasus, eastern Siberia and northern China.
1988 Russia (with Norman Villis and Peter Kerley) – Central Botanic Gardens, Tbilisi, Great and Little Caucasus, Georgian Republic of the Soviet Union.
1990 Russia – Great and Little Caucasus, Royal Society Crimea, Botanical Society of the Russian Republic – to study T. dasystyla
1993 First of four expeditions to study lime-trees (Tilia) in China and Japan funded by the Royal Society and Chinese Academy of Sciences. Hebei, Sichuan, Yunnan and Guangdong Provinces, China. 1995 Sichuan and Hubei Provinces, China. 1996 Jiangxi Province, China. 1998 Northern Kyushu and Southern Honshu, Japan
1994 First of five expeditions to study lime-trees (one with Norman Villis and Peter Kerley) to eastern USA to study lime-trees in the field, in the Arnold Arboretum and the herbarium of Harvard University. One with Peter Kerley to the Instituto de Ecologia, Xalapa in Mexico.
Botanising Around Ireland In 1952, Donald Pigott, newly appointed Professor at Sheffield University, was invited to join a group of distinguished botanists on a legendary 2000-mile field trip around the Republic of Ireland. The trip – proposed by David Webb, Trinity College, Dublin – was to follow the sites mentioned by (Robert) Lloyd Praeger in his books on Irish botany. The field trip included Professor Tom Tutin (Cambridge), Professor Roy Clapham (Sheffield), Dr Max Walters (Cambridge), Professor Tyge Börger (Copenhagen), Donald Pigott (Sheffield) and Peter Sell (Cambridge Herbarium).
‘David Webb’s [Trinity College, Dublin] knowledge was extensive and he would show us most of the rarest plants, but we would also look at these habitats and see what else they offered. We went round the Irish Republic and saw most of the rarities, some with single or very few localities – the Killarney fern (Trichomanes radicans), Fringed sandwort (Arenaria ciliata), the moss, Encalypta alpina, Dwarf Spike-rush (Eleocharis parvula) but only after swimming across the Curragh river!’ Donald Pigott, 2013
Professor Donald Pigott (right) with Dr Tim Upson (left) in the Cory Library, 2013. Professor Pigott signed a copy of his recently published monograph on Lime-trees (Tilia) donated to the Cory Library.
Garden Voices Click on the links and listen to Professor Pigott talking about how his Dot Maps helped convince members of the BSBI to adopt this method for mapping the distribution of the British flora, the development of the Limestone Mound Voices from the 1960s his friendship with Max Walters Voices from the 1980s and why he felt that introducing charges to visit the Botanic Garden, although unpopular in the university, was inevitable Voices from the 1990s.
Donald Pigott is ‘probably the last ecologist alive to have worked with Arthur Tansley,’ says Peter G Ayres, Shaping Ecology: The Life of Arthur Tansley.