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Saturday, 27 February 2021
PROFESSOR Richard Fortey has never been afraid to get his hands dirty.
From selling maggots at his father’s tackle shop to digging up fossils on school fieldwork trips, the award-winning palaeontologist, television presenter and author developed his lifelong love of nature in childhood.
Now the 75-year-old is sharing the story of how his formative years helped him to reach the top of his field, including posts at the universities of Oxford and Bristol.
Prof Fortey’s ninth book, A Curious Boy: The Making of a Scientist, which is released next week, chronicles his first 25 years from a semi-rural upbringing to his first job as a fossil expert at the Natural History Museum in London.
He also recounts his first expedition to the Arctic in which he conducted two months’ field research in a freezing, hostile climate with just one other student for company and the constant threat of attack by polar bears.
Prof Fortey, who lives in St Andrew’s Road, Henley, with his wife Jacqueline and has three grown-up children, has previously written factual works on his areas of expertise and biographies of his adult years.
He is especially interested in trilobites, a family of arthropods which died out during the world’s largest mass extinction 250 million years ago, as well as wildflowers and fungi, the latter of which he studies at home.
He began writing A Curious Boy in 2019, three years after publishing The Wood For The Trees, a study of life in a parcel of woodland he bought at Lambridge Wood near Henley in 2011.
It was due to be published in the autumn but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. The 352-page volume could be his last as he has now covered all his favourite topics.
Prof Fortey says: “Having written my first eight books, it felt like the right time to consider how I’d reached where I am today. Most people’s lives, when they look back, amount to a mix of fortune and judgement so I wanted to explore the roles of each and highlight things which pointed me in the right direction, but in an entertaining way.
“I want to explain both the role of luck and the importance of knowing what to do with it. You should follow what feels right and be persistent because once you get a morsel of luck, you can earn a living doing what you love.”
He grew up in west London with his parents, Frank and Margaret, and younger sister, Katherine, now 73, but spent much of his time in the countryside near Newbury.
His father owned a caravan on land near the River Lambourne, a chalk stream that feeds into the River Kennet, and would often take the family away on fishing trips.
Mr Fortey senior was raised on a farm in Worcestershire so had a broad knowledge of birds and butterflies which he would impart to his son. Prof Fortey’s earliest memories include watching his father landing brown trout.
“I was a keen naturalist for as long as I can remember,” he says. “My father was a fantastic fisherman and my sister and I would go wild in the country whenever he took us — she’d play with her ponies and I did my natural history.
“I started out interested in birds but I was pretty omnivorous and expanded that to other things. It was a pretty idyllic time and despite having grown up in London I think of myself as a country boy.
“Fishing was Dad’s life and once I was older my hands were always deep in maggots or hemp seed, which were both used as bait, at the shop.
“We kept tropical fish in the back room, which I loved looking at, although I never considered becoming an ichthyologist. I didn’t have any thoughts about my future back then — I was quite malleable and would have found the idea of working at the Natural History Museum rather implausible.”
Prof Fortey became intrigued by fossils when he unearthed the remains of an ammonite, a squid-like creature with a coiled shell, on a country trip aged about 10.
He continued to explore this passion when he won a place at Ealing Grammar School for Boys as, unusually, it taught geology and arranged field trips to Pembrokeshire.
Here he first encountered trilobites, which were the subject of his fourth book in 2000.
Prof Fortey was an academic all-rounder but chose to study sciences at A-level when his headmaster Allen Sainsbury Hicks bluntly told him this was the best option.
“He was a rather fearsome character and helped me decide by asking ‘Are you more interested in people or things?’,” recalls Prof Fortey. “I blurted out ‘things’ without giving it much thought so he said, ‘Right, it’s the sciences for you then’.
“At that moment, he’d decided that fork in the road for me and it took about 20 years to bring writing back into my life, when I published my first popular science book.”
When Prof Fortey was 18, his father died in a car crash as he was preparing to sit the scholarship exams for King’s College, Cambridge, where he was planning to study natural history.
He took several months off school before going to university.
“It was a tough age to lose my father as you’ve got enough insecurities already so it was very traumatic for a while,” says Prof Fortey.
“I never got over it, although I found the trip to the Arctic at the end of my second undergraduate year helpful.
“It’s sad that he never saw my later success — he didn’t give me lots of guidance as he was usually off fishing but he was very supportive more generally. I’m thankful that his hobby allowed us to have a very nice countryside life when we were growing up.
“I only got into Cambridge because my headmaster was driven to help pupils achieve their potential and measured his success by how many went to Oxbridge.
“I wouldn’t have been ambitious enough without him giving me a good kick up the backside.”
Prof Fortey’s expedition took him to Svalbard, a remote archipelago owned by Norway which is halfway between there and the North Pole.
He and an older undergraduate were dropped off by boat with no way of contacting the outside world. They had tents, a selection of dried foods to last their stay and a rifle in case of polar bear attack.
Prof Fortey says: “It took place in the summer so it was daylight the entire time.
“I don’t think health and safety would allow it these days because we didn’t even have radios — anything could have happened to us and nobody would have known.
“I’m reliably informed that there were polar bears, although I’m the only person I know who has visited the Arctic twice and never seen one.
“I can only guess it was so bleak and miserable that even they wanted nothing to do with it.
“We were living off dried meat bars, dried vegetables and vitamin supplements which were all carefully planned out.
“It was tough work and the weather was so unpredictable — we had many days where a blizzard would come in and we’d sit reading War and Peace or other Russian classics.
“You’d pass the time by having long conversations because you’ve got to make these expeditions work and can’t afford to fall out. We had little in common but we’d incessantly discuss turning our dried food into an acceptable supper.
“A lot of ingenuity went into doing new things with dried meat, potatoes, onions and curry powder and it’s remarkable how much time you can pass in that way.”
Despite the harsh conditions, the thrill of discovery made Prof Fortey realise he had found his career.
He says: “We were on a raised beach which the wind swept merciless for hours and there was a massive glacier behind it.
“But there were these well-hidden rocks which were full of beautiful fossils once we split them open, including trilobites.
“They were unique to the island and we dated the rocks to the Ordovician period [more than 400 million years ago] so this was hugely exciting, much more than we could have hoped for. You never knew what the next dig was going to bring up, including things that were completely unknown to science.
“There were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing as it was cold and uncomfortable and my fingers were about to fall off but I was always buoyed by the next discovery. There’s no feeling like it and it secured my conviction that this was right for me.”
On returning to Britain, he achieved a first-class degree so used that research as the basis for a doctorate, also at Cambridge. His colleague was going to do this originally but Prof Fortey was given the assignment because he achieved a better degree.
In a further stroke of fortune, he was supervised by Professor Harry Whittington, an expert on trilobites.
He says: “I’ve felt guilty all my life about taking that project over but that’s precisely what I mean when I reflect in the book on the impact of twists of fate.”
The Natural History Museum job was also a coincidence as its resident palaeontologist had just quit. “Suddenly there was a square hole for this square peg to fit into,” says Prof Fortey.
He later chronicled his lengthy service in the post, which he still holds as a volunteer, in his 2008 memoir Dry Store Room No 1.
“Can you imagine it? I was over the moon,” he says. “It was an extraordinary stroke of luck and although there was competition, I got an almost perfect job at the age of 23.
“Some of the older applicants were peeved at that but most became good friends in time.”
His latest book ends at Prof Fortey’s first international conference in Norway, which he says was a sign he’d finally “made it” as a scientist. He presented his research from Svalbard to members of the Norwegian Polar Institute, who agreed to fund a larger expedition which he took part in.
He says: “We had 15 people so this was a proper expedition. I think they felt as though they’d missed out on something when they saw what we’d found. There were lots of elderly gentlemen watching intently and I did worry that I wouldn’t be taken seriously but I got that second expedition going and spent many years thereafter writing up the results.”
During that trip in 1972, he fell in the freezing sea which meant he had about four minutes before death from hypothermia was likely.
He recalls: “I was collecting rocks on low cliffs and lost my footing, then fell in the water, which was full of bobbing icebergs.
“Fortunately, another geologist was able to hold out his hammer for me to grasp and heave me back. I was only in for two minutes but ‘chilled to the bone’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.
“I was soaking wet and the air was freezing so I ran about a mile back to base camp as fast as I could. When I arrived, the water in my boots was warm from my exertions.
“I was actually going to write a book called The Nine Lives of Geologists about the brushes we have with the Grim Reaper but it never happened.”
Prof Fortey published his first book, Fossils: The Key To The Past. through the museum in 1982. Subsequent works include Life: An Unauthorised Biography (1997), which chronicled the first four billion years of life on Earth, and its follow-up, The Earth: An Intimate History, which looked at natural phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanos.
His writing has won several prizes, including the Natural World Book of the Year Award and has also been shortlisted on a number of occasions.
He has appeared in several of Sir David Attenborough’s programmes including Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives in 1989 and First Life in 2010. Both were about the discovery and historic significance of fossils. He also contributed to the speculative Discovery Channel documentary series The Future Is Wild.
In 2004, Prof Fortey represented the Palaeontological Association on University Challenge as part of a team which beat rivals from the Eden Project in Cornwall.
More recently, he has presented BBC 4’s Survivors: Nature’s Indestructible Creatures, The Secret Life of Rock Pools, Fossil Wonderlands: Nature’s Hidden Treasures, The Magic of Mushrooms and Nature’s Wonderlands: Islands of Evolution, which looked at different areas of his expertise.
Meanwhile, his academic work has been recognised with medals from the Geological Society of London, the Linnean Society of London, the Zoological Society of London, the Society for Sedimentary Geology, and the Geological Society of Glasgow.
Prof Fortey was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1997 and his signature will forever remain in its “charter book” alongside those of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
In 2006, the society awarded him its Michael Faraday Prize for the public communication of science. He served as president of the Geological Society of London in 2007 and holds honorary degrees from the University of St Andrews, the Open University and the universities of Birmingham and Leicester. He has also sat on the committees of numerous scientific societies.
Prof Fortey said he had enjoyed writing the latest book and was thankful for his headmaster’s guidance.
“If I ever meet him on the ‘other side’ I will shake his hand,” he says. “You sometimes wonder what would have happened if you’d made different choices but I’d have struggled to earn a living by starting out as a writer.
“By pursuing the sciences, I had a good foundation of knowledge and experience to draw upon when I wanted to scratch that ‘itch’ later on. It’s one thing to write academically but the audience is quite small and it’s nice to write for larger numbers of people.
“It has allowed me to bring together those two paths which were split by Mr Sainsbury Hicks all those years ago. A Curious Boy tells an interesting story and it’s not without adventure and happenstance. I’ve never really recounted it before as you’re usually living at the leading edge of your life until a certain age.
“I’m sure my father would have been proud of what I accomplished. My mother was mystified by it all and used to mispronounce them as ‘tribolites’ but I’m pleased she lived long enough to see me made a Fellow of the Royal Society.
“It’s quite interesting to go back in your mind and see what you can remember — some events are murkier than others but it’s surprising how much is crystal clear.
“I suppose it’s the story of finding my focus and becoming more serious but without losing the pleasure of that childhood excitement.”
• A Curious Boy: The Making of a Scientist by Professor Richard Fortey is published by Harper Collins and will be released on
15 February 2021
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