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Society for the History of Natural History

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A message from SHNH President, Professor Arthur MacGregor

A message from SHNH President, Professor Arthur MacGregor

At SHNH’s AGM in Wakefield, 2015, the Society was delighted to welcome its new President and Council Members as follows: President: Professor Arthur MacGregor and Councillors: Mr Geoffrey Hancock, Mr Matthew Holmes and Dr Anna Marie Roos.

The Officers were re-elected as follows: Hon Treasurer, Mr Bill Noblett; Hon Editor, Professor Peter Davis; Hon Secretary, Mrs Lynda Brooks; and Meetings Secretary, Ms Gina Douglas.


A message from SHNH President, Professor Arthur MacGregor

Never heard of him!” Don’t worry – you haven’t been asleep while I toiled my way through the ranks of the professional naturalists: if I mention that most of my career was spent at the Ashmolean Museum and that my last such appointment was as director of the Society of Antiquaries, you’ll get the picture.

“Bit of an amateur, then?” Pretty much, though I’ve strayed into the natural world from time to time through my interests in archaeology, early modern history, and latterly through the history of collecting (I’ve edited the Journal of the History of Collections for almost thirty years).

What a contrast, then, with our outgoing president, Hugh Torrens, whose work I have known and admired since the early 1980s. A one-man centre of geological excellence, Hugh’s high standing in the world of historical research in the field of natural history is all the more remarkable since this was not at all the focus of his department at Keele. A champion of numberless underrated contributors to the evolution of natural science, Hugh’s interests extend also to John Woodward, William Smith, Mary Anning and others who have become household names due to his work and that of other researchers, not least in the pages of the Geological Curator, in which he was a major driving force, and summed up in his book The Practice of British Geology, 1750–1850 (2002). But of course his interests were much wider: I wondered momentarily if he could really be the writer of an article encountered in an early edition of Motor Sport, but the opening sentence left no room for doubt – “It seems impossible to remain neutral about the front-wheel-drive cars Alvis made between 1925 and 1932”. I don’t believe Hugh has ever been able to remain neutral on any subject and the Society has gained hugely from the campaigning zeal he brought to the presidency.

The very diversity offered by the history of natural history (like the broader history of collecting) gives it an immediate and wide appeal. Archives of Natural History can always be relied upon for a rewarding read, particularly from the way that specialists in one field are exposed to – and are obliged to write for – those whose primary interests may lie elsewhere. I like the way too that any one issue is likely to range in subject-matter from exploration and collecting in the field, through the difficulties of interpretation, conservation, publication, exhibition and reception. Ultimately it’s the impact our subject makes on the wider world that determines its success, rather than its appeal to a narrow interest group. It’s my hope that the membership, having benefited from three years of Hugh Torrens’s expert leadership, will find room to accommodate for a while a more generalized occupant of the presidential chair, though one no less committed to the wellbeing of the Society.

Arthur MacGregor

SHNH President