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Dr Dafydd Wynn Parry (1919-2015)

Dr Dafydd Wynn Parry was a pioneering figure in the field of phytolith research, publishing between the 1950s and 1980s.

Dr Dafydd Wynn Parry died on Saturday 22nd August 2015, aged 96. He had not been well for some time.

Parry was a pioneering figure in the field of phytolith research. He first began work on phytoliths in Bangor, North Wales in the mid 1950’s. The soil scientist, Frank Smithson, who had worked on phytoliths in British soils, enlisted his help to investigate grass phytoliths. As far as I can determine their first joint papers on the subject were published in 1958, with two in Nature and one in the Annals of Botany. They continued a fruitful collaboration, publishing their last paper together in 1966. But Parry did not stop there, and he had a whole series of Ph.D. students and research assistants until the mid-1980’s when he retired. Of these, two went on to build their research careers around plant silicon: Allan Sangster and myself.

I first met Dafydd Wynn Parry on the 20th October 1980, and spent five happy years in Bangor working for him. Our first project was a collaboration with Dr. Charles O’Neill of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Could plant silica be involved in human cancer? Allan Sangster came over for a year on sabbatical during my time in Bangor, and we did a lot of work on the development of phytoliths. Much of this was a collaboration with Carole Perry, Steve Mann and Bob (R.J.P.) Williams at Oxford University. Sadly, Bob Williams, one of the foremost inorganic chemists of his day, also died earlier this year. Towards the end of my time in Bangor we started trying to locate soluble silicon on its way to the phytoliths, and I continued that work later with Allan Sangster in Canada. Parry retired from paid work in the mid 1980’s and published his last paper, appropriately in his beloved Annals of Botany, in 1986. But he retained his interest in plant silicon for very much longer, and used to really appreciate the reprints we sent him. He was a great enthusiast.

In 2012 I sent him a copy of my plant science text book Functional Biology of Plants. I dedicated it  to my Ph.D. supervisor in Swansea, Helgi Öpik, to Allan Sangster and to Dafydd Wynn Parry as the three plant biologists who had the most influence on my career. For Dafydd I wrote: “Dr. Dafydd Wynn Parry (Bangor University, Wales), who first introduced me to the delights of studying silicon in plants.” For all three I concluded, “Without their guidance and friendship, I would never have got as far as writing this book.” I got a very warm note back.

It is difficult for someone who worked with Dafydd Wynn Parry as closely as I did to assess his contribution to phytolith work in an unbiased way. Fortunately, Alix Powers (1992) did that job for me when she reviewed the history of European phytolith research. She devoted two whole sections to the work in Bangor. Powers wrote, “The extensive botanical studies by a number of Welsh analysts provided a valuable source-base of information on the processes of cell wall silicification and the formation of phytoliths in grass species. Without these studies on which to build, many of the archaeological and “applied” botanical studies of ancient and modern phytoliths sources would have been hindered by a lack of basic information.” Parry was very much the leader of this work.  Amusingly, the next section Powers wrote in her chapter was entitled “Non-Bangor Botanists”, and began, “There were a number (admittedly small) of botanical phytolith studies from British institutions outside Bangor.” This shows very clearly just how much of a pioneer Parry was. He ploughed his own furrow, and kept going on research he felt to be important, even when few others seemed interested. Now phytolith research is very much better developed, and hundreds of papers come out every year, particularly those using phytoliths in archaeology and palaeoecology. Dafydd Wynn Parry gave major impetus to phytolith research from the 1950s to the 1980s, and was one of the reasons we are where we are. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

This originally appeared on Martin and Margot Hodson’s Weblog.

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