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Dr Ken Joysey

last modified Jul 04, 2013 02:43 PM
The Department received with sadness the news of the death of Dr Ken Joysey on 25th November 2012.

Ken Joysey spent most of his scientific career in the University Museum of Zoology , and was Director of the Museum from 1970 until his retirement in 1995.

An appreciation of his life and contribution to the Department can be found below. 


Ken Joysey


Ken Joysey, who died on 25th November 2012, spent most of his scientific career in the Museum of Zoology. Ken came to Cambridge from research training at University College London, initially to the Department of Earth Sciences. Subsequently he crossed Downing Street to the Museum, which he entered as Assistant Curator in 1955. In 1970, the distinguished vertebrate palaeontologist Rex Parrington retired and Ken took over as Director.


Ken was Director of the Museum for 25 years (he retired in 1995) but even before he took up this role he had been part of a small group of members of the Department who collaborated with Arup Associates in the design of the Arup Building. This was a very time-consuming occupation, especially because Ken was responsible for masterminding the move of the Museum contents out of the old building and back into the new.


At UCL, Ken had worked on rates of evolution in fossil echinoderms, and an interest in quantifying evolutionary change underpinned all his subsequent work. At Cambridge he took a special interest in Ice Age mammals, and did extensive field work and collecting in the surrounding areas. Many of his colleagues knew him mostly in connection with this work. From 1970, however, Ken became actively involved in the study of molecular evolution. He had the advantage that his wife, Valerie, was working as an immunologist in the area of transplant immunology, and so conversations about proteins were a normal part of domestic life. Ken was already exploring this new area when a collaboration developed with Hermann Lehmann and Alex Romero-Herrera in Biochemistry. This collaboration ran very productively for 6 years, and Ken maintained involvement in the area for many years after. In 1974/75 Ken was a member of the Zaire River Expedition, led by John Blashford-Snell. Ken had done National Service (and had subsequently been seconded to the Ministry of Defence) so he was eminently suited to this military and scientific expedition which provided valuable material for research and for the Museum.


Ken had equal facility in zoology and geology, and he was an inspiring teacher of undergraduates, having taught for all the time of his presence in the Department. Many people currently working in the fields in which he lectured were inspired by his genuine and conspicuous enthusiasm, and remember him with affection and gratitude.


Ray Symonds, the Senior Assistant in the Museum under Ken, writes

“Ken played a massively important part in the design and development of the present Museum building.  The previous building had been a typical Victorian Museum and I'm sure that it was largely Ken's vision, museum expertise, technical know how and attention to detail that ensured we got a Museum whose design and facilities were quite remarkable for their day and are still worthy even by modern standards. 

Of enormous importance to me when I first started in the Museum was Ken's encyclopaedic knowledge of the collections, the collectors, the archives, the Museum's curatorial procedures and technical details of collections management.  This was ALL the collections, not just those for which he had curatorial responsibility or had a research or teaching interest - there cannot be many people in the history of the Museum who have acquired such an in depth, detailed knowledge.  His willingness to share this was vital to my career development.  Whenever I asked Ken a question about the collections or the Museum's procedures I would invariably receive a comprehensive tutorial that not only answered my immediate question but provided me with all the background and related information.  These sessions would frequently go on into the early evening but were invaluable and extremely enjoyable!

His passion for the collections and the animal kingdom, coupled with a passion for passing on knowledge and teaching was not just reserved for members of staff or students.  I frequently witnessed him doing the same for members of the public, of all ages, visiting the galleries.  I am not sure if that is how Museum Directors should spend their time but it is a measure of the generous nature of the man that all you had to do to be a recipient of his wisdom and enthusiasm was to show an interest!”

Adrian Friday and Ray Symonds

November 2012