Seward, Albert Charles

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(b. Lancaster, England, 9 October 1863; d. London, England, 11 April 1941)


Seward’s interest in geology was first inspired by John Marr’s lectures. At Cambridge he took his degree in geology and botany, and on the advice of Thomas McKenny Hughes, decided to work on fossil plants. Botany at Cambridge was then emerging from a period of neglect, and Seward stated that it was quite late in his career when he first heard of living cells and protoplasm—“a revelation.” To further his training as a paleobotanist he spent a year at Manchester with W. C. Williamson and then traveled to European countries where work was being done in that field.

Seward worked on the whole range of fossil plants, but about half his papers dealt with the Mesozoic. He was appointed a lecturer at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1890 and later was made a fellow of the college; he became professor of botany in 1906. His steady stream of papers began in 1888, but it was his great revision of the English Weald flora (1895) that brought him fame and election at the age of thirty-five to the Royal Society. Collections of fossil plants from all over the world poured into Seward’s laboratory. He collected very little until late in his life, when he spent a summer on the western Greenland Cretaceous.

Seward’s synthetic papers dealt with the history of floras, especially with past climates as deduced from fossil plants and with the ways in which changing climates altered the geographical distribution of vegetation. His anatomical descriptions were careful, but he preferred the gross specimen on a large slab to the minute detail. Seward was not interested in the subtleties of comparative and evolutionary morphology and would, if possible, lump species rather than divide them. Impatient with the intricacies of nomenclature that had arisen during his working life, he often proceeded on the basis of what he considered good sense.

Seward became professor of the large and growing department of botany in 1906 and master of Downing College in 1915, both posts that many treated as full-time. In addition he gave generous help to the British Museum and British Association. Although he undertook nearly all of the elementary teaching in botany in addition to giving advanced lectures, he was able to set aside time almost every day for research. Not until he took on yet another full-time post, that of vice-chancellor of the university, was his paleobotanical research suspended.

Seward’s retirement years were as well organized as his working life. At seventy-three he retired voluntarily from his chair and the mastership, and settled down to work near the British Museum. He made it a rule to finish all work before Easter and before Christmas; and so on Good Friday eve of 1941 he left on his desk the finished manuscript of his final paper and answers to all his letters, and went to bed. He died in his sleep.


Seward’s major works include The Wealden Flora, 2 pts. )London, 1894–1895); The Jurassic Flora,2 vols. (London, 1900–1904); Fossil Plants, 4 vols (Cambridge, 1898–1919); and Plant Life Through the Ages (Cambridge, 1931). See also “A Petrified William sonia From Scotland,” in Philosphical Transaction of thr Royal Society, B204 (1912), 201; and “The Cretaceous Plant Bearing Rocks Of Western Greenland ibid, 218 (1926). 215.

A bibliography of Seward’s works is in his obituary in Obituary Notices if Fellows of the Royal Society of London(1941).

Tom M. Harris