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Department of Zoology


We are delighted to offer congratulations to our PhD student Nathan Smith who has won the Society for the History of Natural History’s William T Stearn Student Essay Prize.

William T Stearn, CBE, born in Chesterton, Cambridge, became an outstanding botanical scholar, achieved without receiving a university education.  He worked at the British Museum (Natural History) from 1953-76, retiring as a Senior Principal Scientific Officer.  The Student Essay Prize was established in his honour by the SHNH and Nathan is the eleventh winner of the prize. 

Nathan chose a nineteenth-century mycologist from Yorkshire, Henry Thomas Soppitt (1858-1899) as his subject for the essay, a man it seems much like William T Stearn.  He was a grocer-turned-drysalter originally from Bradford, who developed as a general naturalist before specialising in mycology and, within this, the study of microfungi and their lifecycles.

Nathan writes “Soppitt transcended the traditional boundaries of ‘hobby naturalists’ through engaging in experimental science, using his garden as a laboratory to assess questions regarding the lifecycles of microfungi.”  Sadly, Soppitt died young, aged only 40, yet widely mourned and celebrated throughout Yorkshire. 

Nathan is a 4th year PhD student in the department in the Molecular Ecology group, working on the population genetics of the edible fungus Boletus edulis.

The winning essay: It takes a village: The life of Henry Thomas Soppitt and the attempts by provincial mycologists to navigate their scientific legacy, focuses on the discovery of P. bistortae’s lifecycle, its reception, and Soppitt’s legacy in a changing scientific landscape.

It explores how two Yorkshire mycologists and participants in the discovery, Charles Crossland and James Needham, used accounts of Soppitt’s discovery to ensure his legacy and, later, to attempt to ensure the legacy of their community against a period of growing irrelevance caused by the professionalization of science and subsequent degradation of the amateur.

Nathan’s essay will be published in an upcoming edition of the Archives of Natural History Journal.

The amateur tradition in which Soppitt worked is still alive across the UK. You can find out more about mycology and fungi on UK Fungus Day – 6th October 2019 – see for further details.

Society for the History of Natural History