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Lang, William Henry

Lang, William Henry

(b. Withyham, Groombridge, Sussex, England, 12 May 1874; d. Storth, near Milnthorpe, Westmorland, England, 29 August 1960)


Lang’s father, Thomas Bisland Lang, was a doctor; he died at the age of thirty-four, when his son was only two. His widow, who originally came from Ireland, moved to Bridge of Weir, then a small village fourteen miles from Glasgow, where her husband’s parents had lived. Here Lang attended the village school before proceeding to Denniston School in Glasgow and thence to the University of Glasgow in 1889, when he was fifteen. He graduated B.Sc. in 1894 with honors in botany and zoology, and in 1895 M.B., C.M. (medical qualification) with high commendation. Although he registered as a doctor, he never practiced but became junior assistant in botany under Frederick Bower. A year later Lang was awarded a Robert Donaldson scholarship, which enabled him to work under D. H. Scott, keeper of the Jodrell Laboratory at Kew. In the following year Lang returned to Glasgow to become senior assistant in botany, and in 1900 he graduated D.Sc. At that time D. T. Gwynne-Vaughan was the junior assistant. In 1909 Lang left Glasgow to become Barker professor of cryptogamic botany at the University of Manchester. In the following year he married his cousin Elsa Valentine, who died childless in 1957. After retirement in 1940 Lang continued for a time to reside in Manchester, working in the Manchester Museum, but eventually moved to Storth near Milnthorpe in Westmorland, where he died.

Lang’s botanical interests were greatly influenced by F. O. Bower, D. H. Scott, and Robert Kidston. Bower occupied the chair of botany at Glasgow University for forty years (1885-1925). According to Lang, Bower was an inspiring teacher, and in a biographical memoir (1949) Lang wrote: “To enter Bower’s class for the first time was an arresting experience, as I found in 1890.” Both Bower and Scott were greatly influenced by W.C. Williamson, whom they visited in 1889 at Manchester to study his sections of Carboniferous fossil plants. Henceforth Scott was devoted to paleobotany, while Bower determined to study the existing Pteridophyta, especially with regard to the problems of alternation of generations and the origin of a land flora.

Lang’s earliest research on apogamous reproduction in ferns was carried out at Kew but had begun in Glasgow as a result of Bower’s kindred interest in apospory. Bower favored the view that the sporophyte was a new development from the zygote interpolated between two sexual generations and developed by progressive sterilization. He stated this theory in a paper entitled “On Antithetic as Distinct From Homologous Alternation of Generations in Plants” (1890). D.H. Scott ardently supported the homologous theory, and Lang likewise pointed out that the examples of apogamy he described suggested that the two generations were not as distinct as the antithetic theory supposed.

Lang’s interest in alternation of generations led him to investigate apospory in AnthOceros laevis and the prothallia in Lycopodiales and Ophioglosales. To obtain specimens he visited Ceylon and Malaya in 1899 and brought back Helminthostachys zeylanica, Ophioglossum pendulum, and Psilotum. In these the prothallia are saprophytic by virtue of a symbiotic fungus, whereas in Lycopodium cernuum the prothallium has green photosynthetic lobes, a condition Lang regarded as being more primitive. In 1909 Lang published a paper on a theory of alternation of generations based on ontogeny, and as a result a discussion on “alternation” was organized at the Linnean Society.

Apart from two papers on the microsporangia and ovules of Stangeria paradoxa (1897, 1900) all of Lang’s earlier research was on living cryptogams, including the cone structure of Lycopodium cernuum (1908) and the anatomy and morphology of Botrychium lunaria (1913) and of Isoëtes lacustris (1915). This earlier period of research was abruptly conclued by the unexpected death of D.T. GwynneVaughan, at the age of forty-four, in 1915. The latter had collaborated with Kidston on a study of fossil Osmundaceae; and together they had commenced a series of papers on the Lower Carboniferous flora of Berwickshire, of which only part I (on Stenomyelon) was published in 1912. In that year William Mackie, erstwhile schoolmaster and then medical practitioner in Elgin, discovered the plant-bearing cherts of Rhynie in a dry-stone wall during one of the chert bed in situ by having trenches dug under the supervision of David Tait of the Geological Survey. According to Crookall (1938), Lang visited Kidston at Stirling in 1915 to discuss the possibility of continuing the investigation of the Lower Carboniferous pertified plants; but it was decided to defer this in order to describe the silicified plants of the Rhynie chert. This they did in five classic papers (1917–1921), and these ancient vascular plants (probably Lower Devonian) have now become familiar to all students of botany under their generic names of Rhynia, Hornea (now Horneophyton), and Asteroxylon.

In Rhynia and Hornea the plants had no roots nor leaves and possessed terminal sporangia. In Asteroxylon simple leaves were present, but the vascular traces did not enter the leaves. A new order, Psilophytales, was created for them. Of this joint work D. H. Scott said: “Never was a great discovery more completely and wisely expounded” and John Walton said it was “the most important contribution of the century to our knowledge of early plant life.” Further papers by Kidston and Lang followed on Hicklingia and Palaeopitys (1923), and on Nematophyton and Pachytheca (1924).

After Kidston’s death in 1924 Lang continued the investigation of pre-Carboniferous plants until about 1945. With Isabel Cookson he described vascular plants from Australia that were apparently of Silurian age (1935), and with W. N. Croft he described Lower Devonian plants from Wales (1942). His last publications were obituaries of J. E. Holloway (1947) and F. O. Bower (1949).


I. Original Works. Lang’s works include “Studies in the Development and Morphology of Cycadean Sporangia. I. The Microsporangia of Stangeria paradoxa,” in Annals of Botany,11 (1897), 421-438; “On Apogamy and the Development of Sporangia Upon Fern Prothalli,” in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,190B (1898), 187-238; “The Prothallus of Lycopodium clavatum L. in Annals of Botany,13 (1899), 279-317; “Studies in the Development and Morphology of Cycadean Sporangia. II. The Ovule of Stangeria paradoxa,ibid., 14 (1900), 280-306; “On Apospory in Anthoceros laevis,” ibid., 15 (1901), 503-510; “On the Prothali of Ophioglossum pendulum and Helminthostachys zeylanica,” ibid., 16 (1902), 23-56; “On a Prothallus Provisionally Referred to Psilotum,” ibid., 18 (1904), 571-577; “On the Morphology of Cyathodium,” ibid., 19 (1905), 411-426; “On the Sporogonium of Notothylas,” ibid., 21 (1907), 203-210; “A Theory of Alternation of Generations in Archegoniate Plants Based Upon the Ontogeny,” in New Phytologist, 8 (1909), 3-12; “Discussion on ‘Alternation of Generations’ at the Linnean Society,” ibid., 8 (1909), 104-116; and “On the Interpretetion of the Vascular Anatomy of the Ophioglossaceae,” in Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society , 56 , no. 12 (1912), 1-15.

Other papers include “Studies in the Morphology and Anatomy of the Ophioglossaceae. I. On the Branching of Botrychium lunaria, with Notes on the Anatomy of Young and Old Rhizomes,” in Annals of Botany, 27 (1913), 203-242; “Studies in the Morphology and Anatomy of the Ophioglosaceae. II. On the Embryo of Helminthostachys,” ibid., 28 (1914), 19-37; “Studies in the Morphology and Anatomy of the Ophioglossaceae. III. On the Anatomy and Branching of the Rhizome of Helminthostachys zeylanica,” ibid., 29 (1915), 1-54; “Studies in the Morphology of Isoëtes. I. The General Morphology of the Stock of Isoëtes lacustris,” in Memoirs and Proceedings of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, 59 , pt. 1 (1915), 1-28; and “Studies in the Morophology of Isoëtes. II. The Analysis of the Stele of the Shoot of Isoëtes lacustris in the Light of Mature Structure and Apical Development,” ibid., 59 , pt. 2 (1915), 29-56.,

“On Old Red Sandstone Plants Showing Structure From the Rhynie Chert Bed, Aberdeenshire,” written with R. Kidston, was published in five parts in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; they are: “Part I. Rhynia Gwynne-Vaughani,” 51 (1917), 761-784; “Part II. Additional Notes on Rhynia Gwynne-Vaughani,” 52 (1920), 605-627; “Part III. Asteroxylon Mackiei,” 52 (1920), 643-680; “Part III. Asteroxylon Mackiei,” 52 (1920), 643-680; “Part IV. Restorations of the Vascular Cryptogams, and Discussion of Their Bearing on the General Morphology of the Pteridophyta and the Origin of the Organization of Land Plants,” 52 (1921), 831-854; and “Part V. The Thallophyta Occurring in the Peat-bed; the Succession of the Plants Throughout a Vertical Section of the Bed, and the Conditions of Accumulation and Preservation of the Deposit,” 52 (1921), 855-902.

The following articles were published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: “On Palaeopitys Milleri ǀ M‘Nab,” written with R. Kidston, 53 , pt. 2 (1923), 409-417; “Notes on Fossil Plants From the Old Red Sandstone of Scotland. i. HIcklingia Edwardi, K. and L.,” 53 (1923), 405-407, written with R. Kidston; “Notes on Fossil Plants From the Old Red’Sandstone of Scotland. II. Nematophyton Forfarense, Kidston sp., III. On Two Species of Pachytheca (P. media and P. fasciculata) Based on the Characters of the Algal Filaments,” 53 (1924), 603-614, written with R. Kidston.

“Contributions to the Study of the Old Red Sandstone Flora of Scotland” was published in seven parts in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh: “1. On Plant Remains From the Fish-beds of Cromarty” and “II. On a Sporangium-bearing Branch-system From the Stromness Beds,” 54 (1925), 253-279; “III. On Hostimella (Ptilophyton) Thomsoni and Its Inclusion in a new Genus, Milleria,” “IV. on a Specimen of Protolepidodendron From the Middle Old Red Sandstone of Caithness,” and “V. On the Identification of the Large ‘Stems’ in the Carmyllie Beds of the Lower Old Red Sandstone as Nematophyton54 (1926), 253-279; “VI. on Zosterophyllum Myretonianum Penh., and Some Other Plant Remains From the Carmyllie Beds of the Lower Old Red Sandstone,” and “VII. On a Specimen of Pseudosporochnus from the Stromness Beds,” 55 (1926), 448-456; and “VIII. On Arthrostigma, Psilophyton, and Some Associated Plant-Remains From the Strathmore Beds of the Caledonian Lower Old Red Sandstone,” 57 (1932), 491-521.

See also “Some Fossil Plants of Early Devonian Type From the Walhalla Series, Victoria, Australia,” in Philosophical Transactions, 219B (1930), 133-163, written with I. C. Cookson; “On the Spines, Sporangia, and Spores of Psilophyton princepsDawson, Shown in Spcimenns from Gaspeatue,é” ibid., 219B (1931), 421-442; “On a Flora, Including Vascular Land Plants, Associated With Monograptus, in Rocks of Silurian Age, From Victoria, Australia,” ibid., 224B (1935), 421-449, written with I. C. Cookson; “On the Plant-remains From the Downtonian of England and Wales,” ibid., 227B (1937), 245-291; and “The Lower Devonian Flora of the Senni Beds of Monmouthshire and Breconshire,” ibid., 231B (1942), 131-168, written with W. N. Croft.

See also “Obitaury. John Ernest Holloway 1881-1945,” in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 5 (1947), 425-444; “Obituary. Frederick Orpen Bower 1855-1948,” ibid., 6 (1949), 347-374.

II. Secondary Literature. For essential details of Lang’s life and work, see E. J. Salisbury, “Obituary. William Henry Lang 1874-1960,” in Biographical Memoris of the Fellows of the Royal Society, 7 (1961), 147-160, with a complete bibliography; see also F. O. Bower, “On Antithetic as Distinct From Homologous Alternation of Generations in Plants,” in Annals of Botany, 4 (1890), 347-370; R. Crookall, “The Kidston Collection of Fossil Plants,” in Memoirs of the Geological Survey of the United Kingdom, 5 (1938); and R. Kidston and D. T. GwynneVaughan, “On the Carboniferous Flora of Berwickshire. Part 1. Stenomyelon tuedianum Kidston,” in Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 48 (1912), 263-271.

Albert G. Long

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