Today, 26th July is James Lovelock’s 100th birthday!

Professor Willie Wilson said: “Professor Lovelock has been associated with the Marine Biological Association since 1982, first as a Council member, then as its President from 1986 to 1990, and finally as an Honorary Fellow since 2014. I admire his entrepreneurial views and deep thinking on planetary science issues. In particular, I have always advocated for his Gaia hypothesis, and I often use this theory when trying to convince audiences how marine viruses influence the weather! Therefore, it is an absolute honour to be invited to Professor Lovelock’s centenary birthday celebration on 26th July at the Orangery, Blenheim Palace; where hopefully I will finally get a chance to meet him.”

By way of celebrating this, we invited Professor Michael Whitfield – MBA Director & Secretary from 1987 to 1999 and a close personal friend of James Lovelock – to write a short piece acknowledging his lasting influence on the philosophy and fortunes of the Association over the past 40 years. In this abridged version, Michael focuses on his personal contributions that enabled the MBA as an entity to prosper despite the turbulent and unpredictable events of the last decades of the 20th Century.


Notes by Professor Michael WHITFIELD, PhD, FRSC, FGS (abridged version)

1970 to 1990

Jim published his early papers on the biological control of atmospheric composition in the late 1960s. I was fortunate to open a correspondence with him which continued after I joined the MBA at the Citadel Hill Laboratory in 1970. With the encouragement of Eric Denton (as MBA Director), and JZ Young (as MBA President), we developed a collaboration and friendship that lasts to this day. As an independent scientist with a passionate belief in the role of individual scientists as innovators, Jim felt very much at home with the way the MBA Laboratory was run. He and Eric Denton (then MBA Director), also shared an enthusiasm for addressing important problems by designing elegant experiments using equipment that they had made themselves. Jim’s recently qualified PhD student Andrew Watson joined me at the MBA in 1981, and continued his collaboration with Jim. He began to develop an inert transient tracer of ocean mixing (SF6), using Jim Lovelock’s electron capture detector (ECD), capable of sensing concentrations as low as 1 part in a million billion! His modelling work and analytical studies of the CO2 cycle broadened the scope of both MBA & PML science – he is also widely known for the allegorical paper he wrote with Jim entitled ‘Daisy World’ - on biological climate feedbacks.

Like all important hypotheses, Gaia raised many questions and attracted much criticism & unexpected reactions. Jim Lovelock, in his biographical memoir ‘Homage to Gaia’, indicated that the discussions and collaborations at the MBA were of great help to him at a difficult period in the gestation of the Gaia concept. 

James Lovelock in 1989. Photo AJ Southward

Jim became an MBA Council Member in 1981 and was elected President in 1987, just as I became the MBA Director. This was a time of great uncertainty in Plymouth. He was instrumental in careful negotiations with NERC that secured the future independence of the MBA by the MBA/NERC Agreement (implemented in 1988). This was an auspicious moment for the MBA, enabling it to reinvigorate its membership and educational programmes and award Research Fellowships to talented individuals with strong academic links and an ability to secure funding in a competitive environment. 

At this time, Plymouth scientists were already working together with many research groups around the UK on plans for a Biogeochemical Ocean Flux Study (BOFS) - a multidisciplinary field study of the biogeochemical processes driving the cycling of the elements in the ocean and their influence on atmospheric carbon dioxide uptake. This was one component of the large-scale studies that would pioneer many of the techniques and strategies crucial for the development of ‘ocean systems science’ with biology at its heart – a natural step on the progression from Jim’s ‘Gaia Hypothesis’ to a ‘Gaia Theory’.

1990 to 2000

As Jim Lovelock retired as President in 1990, he skilfully encouraged Sir Crispin Tickell to take on the role. Sir Crispin had been British Ambassador to the UN, and with Jim Lovelock, had helped brief Margaret Thatcher for her famous, and unexpected, climate change speeches to the Royal Society and to the UN in 1989. As a direct descendent of the MBA’s first President, TH Huxley (also known as Darwin’s bulldog), he assumed the role of President with energy and enthusiasm and set the MBA Council on a positive trajectory. He continued a close personal collaboration with Jim Lovelock, including a sequence of international ‘Gaia in Oxford’ meetings which helped to broaden the reach of the MBA research programme. Jim has said that the appointment of Sir Crispin as President was his own most significant contribution to the MBA.

Shortly after the merger of the MBA and PML in 1987, the PML team responsible for the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey became redundant and sought help from the MBA Council to secure the continuity of this valuable long-term data series. This had the support of both Jim Lovelock and Sir Crispin Tickell as MBA Presidents. The MBA Council agreed to help by working with Bob Dickson at MAFF and with other agencies to find alternative funding and accommodation. SAHFOS had moved all of its activities to Citadel Hill by 2003, and a full merger of SAHFOS and the MBA was achieved in 2018 under the Directorship of Professor Wilson. 

In 1996 the MBA library was designated as the National Marine Biological Library (NMBL), confirming its national and international importance.

In 1998 Keith Hiscock, in collaboration with the environmental protection agencies and academic institutions in Britain and Ireland, helped establish the Marine Life Information Network (MarLIN) at Citadel Hill. This programme would continue to collect and analyse information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles. MarLIN celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

Together with a Resource Centre for marine biological research, education and training, these developments put in place the essential components for a renaissance of the national and international roles of the MBA. In the 21st Century successive Presidents, Councils and Directors have made creative use of these bare bones to establish a creative and diverse organisation.

James Lovelock is an Honorary Fellow of the Marine Biological Association

Jul 26, 2019 By guba