View all news

Dr John Frederic Hope-Simpson 1913-2007

Dr John Hope-Simpson

Dr John Hope-Simpson

14 August 2007

Dr John Hope-Simpson, a lecturer in the Botany Department for 31 years, died in February.

John Hope-Simpson was always known as H-S to everyone in the Botany Department, staff and students. He was born in London in 1913 and attended Gresham’s School in Norfolk. From there he went on to Oxford University, where he was awarded a first in Botany. He stayed on at Oxford to carry out research for his DPhil on the ecology of grasslands on soils overlying chalk. His supervisor was Professor AG Tansley FRS (later Sir Arthur Tansley), the founding father of plant ecology in Britain. The resulting papers contribute to our basic knowledge and understanding of how the species composition and structure of these grasslands is controlled, especially in relation to features of the soil and to grazing by sheep and rabbits.

In 1939 he spent several months on an expedition in southern Sudan. This resulted in a substantial and important paper on the open savanna woodland of that region and its relation to the soils; publication was delayed until after the Second World War. During the war, H-S was at first part of a team concerned with how food production from grassland areas could be increased. Later, in the run-up to D-Day, he was transferred to interpretation of aerial photographs of France.

In 1947 he was appointed to a lectureship in the Botany Department, where he remained until his retirement in 1978. He and his wife Elizabeth lived in the country to the south of Bristol, beyond Pensford. They had two daughters; Elizabeth died in 1999.

During his early years in the Department his teaching was mainly on genetics. Although he had no research experience of this branch of biology, his lectures were, by student report, clear and interesting. Later, as more staff joined the Department, he was able to transfer his teaching to his own area of expertise, plant ecology. He was instrumental in starting a course in conservation, to which other staff contributed.

From his arrival at Bristol onwards, his research was particularly involved with Braunton Burrows, a large area of sand dunes on the north coast of Devon. Various staff colleagues and research students were involved in the ongoing research, but H-S was the leader, the one who continued over decades as others came and went. The research was wide-ranging and involved other aspects of botany besides ecology, especially physiology. Major multi-author papers resulted. Study of how the vegetation varied across the dune system provided a basis for understanding how the vegetation was controlled by features of the soil and microclimate. Yearly records were made, which as the years passed became very valuable information on how the vegetation was changing, which could be related to changes in the soils and in climate. For many years there was a week-long undergraduate field course at Braunton, organised by H-S; it was a special and memorable experience for the students to take part in this ongoing project. After his retirement H-S continued investigations at Braunton, sometimes with a former colleague, sometimes with assistance from locally based volunteers. His last visit was only about 18 months before he died.

Outside the University he was active in promoting conservation; for many years he was a leading member of the Somerset and Wiltshire Wildlife Trusts. He had wide interests outside botany, and he read widely. For many years he sang in the Bristol Choral Society.  He was noted for producing unexpected and perceptive questions about subjects far removed from his research area. He was almost always cheerful, even at difficult times. He will be remembered with affection by former colleagues, and by generations of students.


Edit this page