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Subdepartment of Quaternary Research

A short history

The University of Cambridge Subdepartment of Quaternary Research was founded on 1 October 1948 to establish "a valid scheme of world events throughout and since the Ice Age in which the results of botanical, zoological, geological, archaeological, climatological, geographical and other investigations have been correlated and to provide this scheme with a timescale of years or periods of years." Under the leadership of its first Director, then Dr and later Professor Sir Harry Godwin , the Subdepartment went on to become both nationally and internationally renown.

The Subdepartment of Quaternary Research grew out of Harry Godwin's participation in a pivotal Cambridge-based pre-Second World War research group; the Fenland Research Committee . This group of academics and professionals undertook wide-ranging research that demonstrated the ground-breaking achievements of a multidisciplinary approach to recent geological history by their investigations of the origins and evolution of the Fens, north-east of Cambridge. Harry Godwin was a central member of this group and, although it only existed for 8 years, its' success convinced him of the need for a group to undertake Quaternary research in Cambridge after the War.

Initial discussion had already began in 1938, but in spite of the War consultations began during 1943 on how the University should attempt to rebuild itself after the War finished. Five years later that the Subdepartment of Quaternary Research, based in the Department of Botany (Botany School), came into existence.

The Subdepartment began by establishing principally the technique of pollen analysis, supported by plant macrofossil analyses, as the major means of investigating vegetational history during Quaternary time. Initially the research was focussed on the study of post-glacial or Holocene sequences.

Harry Godwin realised the importance of type collections as a vital pre-requisite to developing and refining the identification of fossil assemblages. This need led to the recruitment of assistants to curate the collections and to count his fossil samples. Of these the most important figure was Miss Robin Andrew , who joined the Subdepartment by chance in its first year and stayed until its untimely demise four and a half decades later. Plant macrofossils were originally curated by Mrs M. Robinson and a host of other since then. It also led to the development of type collections which have since been added to continually to the present day (they are now housed in the QPG).

During its first decade the Subdepartment became home to an extraordinary number of researchers, especially students who were to become eminent Quaternary workers in later life, such as Donald Walker, Richard West, Joakim Donner, Sue Duigan, Allan Smith, Brian Seddon, Frank Oldfield, Anne Stevens, Judy Turner, Jim Dickson and his wife Camilla (Lambert) and Grahame Evans. They both strengthened and diversified the detail of research in the early 1950s, with topics such as sea-level change, moss assemblages and radiocarbon dating etc. becoming part of the range of studies carried out. Workers, such as Donald Walker, Eric Willis, F.Allen Hibbert and R.G.Pearson, were also appointed to junior staff posts such as Assistant or Senior Assistant in Research.

The realisation that pollen analytical techniques could be used to characterise and thereby biostratigraphically subdivide the Quaternary led to researchers, particularly inspired Richard West , to apply the technique to the British Pleistocene. The revolutionary approach was instrumental in the development of a subdivision of the last 2-3 million years in a detail never previously possible. The interdisciplinary application of lithostratigraphy, biostratigraphy and palaeoecology to unravelling Quaternary sequences was a powerful combination which ultimately lead to Subdepartment researchers working on the widest range of Quaternary deposits and environments. Richard West published several books on the Quaternary, the most influential being Pleistocene geology and biology (Longmans 1968, 1977). RichardWest became the Subdepartment's second director on the retirement of Sir Harry Godwin in 1966.

The importance of absolute dating methods was recognised early by Harry Godwin, so that he pioneered the establishment, in Cambridge of a radiocarbon-dating laboratory under the direction of Eric Willis , who was responsible for the development of the equipment. The equipment, initially housed in the Botany School was removed in 1958 to 5 Salisbury Villas on Station Road. a large house, with associated outbuildings that housed the laboratories.

Eric Willis was later superceded by Roy Switsur who continued to develop and refine the radiocarbon facilities until the early 1990s. Among his contributions was the replacement of the original gas-counters by liquid-scintillation counters in 1977. Later, Roy also became interested in dendrochronology and dendroclimatology, beginning a whole new area of investigations through the 1980s-90s. Roy Switsur had an active dendrochronological research group, notably including research students Valerie Mullane, Neil Loader and retired Anglia Polytechnic University lecturer Tony Carter.

Harry Godwin was also responsible for encouraging the undergraduate physicist Nick Shackleton to begin investigating the sequences of oxygen isotopes found in deep-sea sediments for his doctoral research. He arrived in the Subdepartment to work as a research assistant under Eric Willis in 1961. His success in the field led to the growth of an entire subdiscipline within Quaternary science, palaeoceanography and isotope stratigraphy, which today is probably more influential than palaeontological and palaeobotanical techniques upon which the original Subdepartment was based. Nick Shackleton's research students included Chris Bates, Richard Corfield, Alex Chepstow-Lusty and Mark Maslin, among others. Nick Shackleton also had a series of post-doctoral workers including Mark Chapman. Mike Hall, Nick's research assistant was appointed in 1963.

During his early years in the Subdepartment Nick Shackleton was housed with Roy Switsur's group in Salisbury Villas but in 1977 the establishment of a new facility, the Godwin Laboratory on the University's New Museums' Site brought the groups back into the city centre.

Meanwhile in the Botany School, where the palaeobotanical group continued to operate, considerable changes were marked by the arrival of geologists and palaeobotanists to work with Richard West. Of particular note are several of Richard West's research students and assistants: Peter Norton, Charles Turner, Gay Wilson, Frances Bell, Hilary Birks, John Birks, Rhona Peck, Roger Beck, Linda Phillips, Andrew Brown, Philip Gibbard, Robert Devoy, Allan Hall, Peter Coxon, Anne Alderton, Paul Ventris and James Scourse. Other arrivals included the post-doctoral vertebrate palaeontologist Tony Stuart, palaeoecologist and molluscan expert Richard Preece . These individuals brought the investigation of terrestrial interglacial, glacial and interstadial sequences into the Subdepartment thereby widening the spectrum of research topics still further. In addition, Ursula Allitt, an aerobiologist, first arrived in 1967 as a research assistant to investigate the atmospheric pollen and spore content in Cambridge. Richard also maintained very close co-operation with his friend and colleague, Bruce Sparks , the geomorphologist / malacologist in the Department of Geography.

Other changes in the Botany School occurred with the appointment of John Birks, a highly-talented botanically-trained research student of Richard West, initially to a Demonstratorship in 1971, then a Lectureship in Botany in 1974. His thesis on the Vegetational history of the Isle of Skye (CUP, 1971) became a significant contribution to the increasingly detailed and refined science of botanical palaeoecology . He was an inspiring teacher and encouraged a series of research students over the years to develop projects on Holocene vegetational history, palaeolimnology and numerical methods of handling fossil data. He also pioneered the use of computers for manipulating and displaying information. John, supported by his wife Hilary, had a number of very talented research students, many of whom went on to become leading figures in their own right. They included Leslie Rymer, Brian Huntley, Colin Prentice, Richard Bradshaw, Peter Beales, Mary Edwards, Willy Williams, Henry Lamb, Paul Kerslake, Keith Bennett, Jacquie Huntley and John Line. John Birks left the University to take up a post at the University of Bergen in Norway in 1978.

In 1984 Phil Gibbard was appointed to a new Assistant Director of Research position position of sedimentologist / stratigrapher, confirming the importance that this field now commanded in the Subdepartment. His appointment led to the arrival of research students continuing his geological approach. They included Lorraine Allen, Gillian Cox, Jamie Woodward, Helen Roe, Juha Pekka Lunkka, Andrew Richards, Mike Garbett, Cunhai Gao and Chris Glaister. Post-doctoral researchers working with Phil Gibbard included Mike Field, Aileen Davis and Colin Whiteman.

The growth in dating techniques led to the arrival in 1978 in the Godwin Laboratory of the Oxford-trained geochronologist Ann Wintle to undertake dating using the new technique of thermoluminescence. Ann was ultimately to stay in Cambridge for 10 years until she left for Royal Holloway College, London where she was appointed to a lectureship. Ann Wintle's research students included Grahame Southgate and Liping Zhou. She was replaced in 1988 by Rainer GrĂ¼n, who, joined by Eddie Rhodes, not only continued Ann's work but also established an Electron Spin Resonance dating facility. He also left to become a researcher in the Australian National University.

Throughout its existence there was close co-operation of colleagues within the Subdepartment with others, particularly those engaged in allied research in neighbouring departments in the University. Links with the Departments of Geology (later Earth Sciences), Archaeology, Geography, Zoology and Applied Biology (Agriculture) were longstanding, many originating through Harry Godwin's links with the Fenland Research Committee. But these links continued long after, particularly with the Archaeology Department who sent several jointly supervised research students Kathy Willis, Rupert Housley and Neil Holman to work in the Botany School laboratories. Post-doctoral workers Steve Beckett and Martin Waller were also included in the SDQR personnel.

Much of the success of the palaeoecological and stratigraphical research was achieved not only through the presence of the highly-talented academic members but also through the dedicated technical staff, the involvement of whom in the research was total. In the early years this included Marie Ransom (from 1963) and from 1969 Mary Pettit, followed by Sylia Peglar in 1974 and finally Steve Boreham in 1989. Similarly the success of the palaeotemperature group under Nick Shackleton was totally dependent on the irreplaceable Mike Hall and the radiocarbon laboratory by Allan Ward,who was originally appointed in 1967. Visitors, many on sabbatical leave, and many who returned regularly, were always welcomed in all the research groups. There are too many to mention them all but special mention must be made of several longstanding friends of the Subdepartment, such as Dan Livingstone, Pat Suggate, Cal and Linda Heusser, Grahame Larson, Frank Mitchell, Bill Watts, Thompson Webb, Veli-Pekka Salonen and Marjatta Aalto to name but a few.

The departure of John Birks in 1985 led to a vacant post for an Assistant in Research becoming available. Keith Bennett was appointed to take up the baton for Holocene plant palaeoecology. He too had a group of students who went on to success elsewhere, including Keith Bryant, Julie Fossit, Jane Bunting, Susan Lumley, Chronis Tzedakis and Janice Fuller.

However, by 1992, the success of the Cambridge Quaternary community had grown to such an extent that, soon after R.G.West had retired as Director and had been replaced by N.J.Shackleton, the third and final Director, it was becoming obvious that the position of the Subdepartment in the Botany (later Plant Sciences) Department was increasingly anachronistic. As a result a Review Committee, appointed by the University General Board in 1992, whilst highly praising the Subdepartment, judged that Quaternary research at Cambridge required a broader base than that provided by the Department of Plant Sciences. As a result, it was decided that the Subdepartment should be 'suppressed', the staff should be dispersed among the 'client' departments and a new, wider-ranging, umbrella organisation should be created. So the Subdepartment was formally closed on 31 December 1994 (after 46 years) and the Godwin Institute of Quaternary Research (GIQR) opened on 1 January 1995.

SDQR future

Today, the GIQR is a semi-informal research grouping of approximately 55-60 people. Its constituent research groups are based in the Departments of Geography, Earth Sciences, Archaeology and Zoology. Links also exist with the Department of Physics, the Scott Polar Research Institute and the British Antarctic Survey. There is an excellent research environment at all levels, fostered by the staff (10 members), post-doctoral workers, and both Ph.D. and M.Phil. students pursuing interdisciplinary research in a wide range of Quaternary fields. This environment is unique in Britain, offering opportunities for research student training unequalled elsewhere, in terms of the range and quality of the expertise available.

The GIQR Director was Professor Sir N.J.Shackleton (1995-2004). With the future form of the GIQR in question no-one is currently appointed as director to succeed Professor Shackleton.

  • Further details of the development and personnel associated with the Subdepartment of Quaternary Research can be found in the Annual Reports. Until 1975 they were published in the Cambridge University Reporter, after which they were published directly by the Subdepartment. They can be downloaded here.