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Former NHM Curator Cyril Walker Passed Away May 6

Cyril Walker, formerly curator of fossil birds in the Natural History Museum, died after a long illness on Wednesday, 6 May 2009, aged 70.

Cyril joined the staff of the then British Museum (Natural History) in 1958 as a scientific assistant and, apart from two years National Service in the Royal Army Education Corps, spent his entire career in the Museum, progressing through a series of promotions to senior scientific officer in 1985. His career was a combination of curation and research; his particular research expertise lay in fossil birds, backed up by his considerable renown as an enthusiastic bird watcher with a world-wide life list. He enjoyed a productive research collaboration with the late Colin Harrison, who worked in the Natural History Museum’s Sub-department of Ornithology at Tring, and together they published a series of papers through the 1970s on Mesozoic and Cenozoic birds, notably the rich avifauna from the Lower Eocene of the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. Cyril’s most outstanding research finding was his recognition of a new subclass of fossils birds, Enantiornithes, based on very incomplete skeletons from the latest Cretaceous in Argentina, which he published in Nature in 1981. Because the material was incomplete and lacked any skulls, his work was not seen as particularly significant at that time. Today, however, his work is recognized as a hugely important discovery in the history of avian palaeontology and he was gratified to see the growing discoveries and literature on enantiornithines, now much better understood as the dominant group of Cretaceous birds. He made a late return to Mesozoic bird research, publishing in 2007 (with Eric Buffetaut and Gareth Dyke) a final paper that outlined his early views on enantiornithines and the background to his discovery.

Cyril also developed an interest in fossil turtles and wrote a series of papers on trionychoid turtles with Dick Moody of Kingston Polytechnic/University and together with Moody, Sandra Chapman of the NHM, Gene Gaffney and Peter Meylan described important new genera from Mali and the Isle of Wight. He also wrote many popular articles on ornithology and several guides on birds and fossils. Cyril was a fine and generous colleague with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the collections in his care. He welcomed many research visitors from around the world and always put himself out to be helpful, supportive and convivial. He regarded it as a part of the job to introduce colleagues to the delights of English beer in the ‘Hoop and Toy’ pub. Cyril was a big personality,

Cyril was joint leader of a number of trans-Saharan expeditions in which the Natural History Museum participated. These expeditions gave him opportunities to demonstrate his talent as a brilliant field cook. He was a great ambassador who loved his subject and was proud to represent the Museum and his country in the driest parts of Africa. He took part in an ill-fated expedition to the Sokoto Basin in Nigeria with the Bev and Jenny Halstead, Eric Buffetaut and Dick Moody in 1979. As a result of internal political and academic tensions, an attempt was made to sabotage the project. The team were staying at a house prior to starting their work when it was surrounded at dawn by Nigerian troops and police. The Europeans were arrested and taken to a military barracks, and the same afternoon were “tried” — without any legal representation — by the local governor, an army general. The charge was attempting to steal “antiquities.” Having been found guilty, they were sent to Lagos, where they were interrogated at the somewhat infamous Ikoyi police establishment. Subterfuge ruled however, and a deal was offered by a secret police officer that the group would be supported if they stayed and said nothing. Dick Moody and Eric Buffetaut opted to leave the country (albeit as FBI Agents) whereas Cyril and the Halsteads were kept under house arrest in Ibadan. All were threatened they could expect several years in a Nigerian jail. In the event, after a month they were allowed to leave the country. Throughout this ordeal, Cyril remained his usual sanguine self and when the restraint of the house arrest was lifted — hired a taxi with the Halsteads to take them back to the Sokoto Basin, where he managed to collect some fossil turtle skulls which, strangely, disappeared on the way out of the country. 

Cyril also took part in a joint expedition to the Cretaceous of Queensland in Australia in 1978 with Alan Charig of the NHM, Barry Cox (King’s College London) and Dave Norman (then at Queen Mary College, London), together with a Queensland team led by Alan Bartholomai of Queensland Museum that discovered, among other things, the earliest herring. He led the Natural History Museum’s contingent (including Andy Currant, Phil Crabb, Angela Milner and Peter Whybrow) to Niger in 1988 with Dick Moody’s Kingston Polytechnic (now The University of Kingston) crew. The expedition collected Cretaceous dinosaur material near Agadez and featured in Sir David Attenborough’s BBC television series "Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives."

Cyril took on the task of planning and co-ordinating the move from the Natural History Museum’s outstation store at Ruislip to Wandsworth between 1990 and 1995 while continuing to spend one day a week on fossil bird curation and research. His final post was in the Bird Section at Tring from 1996 until he retired in February 1999. In retirement, he continued his bird research and publication on a collaborative basis until last year when his health began to fail.

Cyril leaves his long-term partner and latterly his wife, Judy Greenwood, and a step- family, with whom he found peace and contentment over more than twenty years. Gareth Dyke and Larry Martin have convened a special symposium on Mesozoic birds in Cyril’s honour during the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s first European meeting at the University of Bristol in September 2009. He knew of these plans and felt very honoured. Many of his colleagues fervently hoped he would be well enough to attend the meeting but it was not to be.

Angela Milner
Associate Keeper of Palaeontology
The Natural History Museum

Richard Moody
Emeritus Professor
Kingston University London

Gareth Dyke
University College Dublin 

Photo ©John Gooders. | Impressum