S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Seward, Professor Albert Charles (palaeobotany)

Born: 9 October 1863, Lancaster, England.
Died: 11 April 1941, Oxford, England.

Albert C. Seward, British botanist and geologist, studied at St John's College, Cambridge, where he obtained a first class pass in the natural science tripos in 1886 and was subsequently awarded the degree Master of Arts (MA). He studied palaeobotany at Manchester for a year and then visited museums on the European continent to acquaint himself with their collections of fossil plants. In 1890 he was appointed lecturer in botany at the University of Cambridge. He was promoted to professor of botany at Cambridge in 1906 and held this post until he retired in 1936, serving also as master of Downing College from 1915 to 1936. As an excellent lecturer he drew many students. However, he was also an indefatigable researcher who studied collections of fossil plants from all over the world. The results of his studies were published in ten books and over 100 papers. His Fossil plants for students of botany and geology, published in four volumes during 1898-1919, was an important work that covered all groups except the flowering plants. Also important was his Plant life through the ages (1931), which included the geographical distribution of plants in earlier geological times and pointed out the significance of fossil plants as indicators of past climate.

Seward studied various collections of South African fossils and reported on them in both British and South African journals. His first paper on the subject, "Note on some fossil plants from South Africa" was presented before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1896 and published in its Report for that year. This was soon followed by "On the association of Sigillaria and Glossopteris in South Africa" (Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1897) and "The Glossopteris flora: An extinct flora of a Southern Hemisphere continent" (Science Progress, 1897). His first publication in South Africa was an important monograph on "Fossil floras of Cape Colony" in the Annals of the South African Museum (1903, Vol. 4(1), pp. 1-122), in which he described the Uitenhage, Stormberg, Ecca, and Witteberg floras, based on collections made by the staff of the Geological Commission of the Cape of Good Hope. Soon thereafter his "Reports on a collection of Natal fossil plants from: 1. The Ecca Coal Series of Umhlali on the north-east coast of Natal. 2. The Drakensberg Range in west Natal" was published in William Anderson's* Second report of the Geological Survey of Natal and Zululand (1904). These and subsequent papers proved very valuable for the stratigraphical understanding of the country.

In 1905 Seward visited South Africa to attend the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science. As president of Section K (Botany) of the British Association he delivered a general account of "The fossil flora of South Africa". The next year he and others reported on "Research on South African cycads: Interim report of the Committee" in the association's Report for 1906. His subsequent papers included "On a collection of Permo Carboniferous plants from the St Lucia coalfield, Zululand" (Transactions of the Geological Society of South Africa, 1907, Vol. 10, p. 81); "Permo Carboniferous plants from Vereeninging" (with T.N. Leslie*, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1908); "Notes on fossil plants from the Witteberg Series, Cape Colony" (Geological Magazine, 1909), describing specimens collected by E.H.L. Schwarz* at Port Alfred; and "A new genus of fossil plants from the Stormberg Series of Cape Colony" (Records of the Albany Museum, 1912, Vol. 2(4), pp. 284-286), in which he named the genus Stormbergia. A report by him "On a collection of fossil plants from Southern Rhodesia" (now Zimbabwe) was published by the Geological Survey of that country (Bulletin No. 8, 1921). In 1929 he visited South Africa again to attend the Fifteenth International Geological Congress in Pretoria and the meeting in South Africa of the British Association. He delivered a paper before the latter on "Botanical records of rocks, with special reference to the early Glossopteris flora" (Report of the British Association..., 1929, pp. 199-216). During this visit the University of Cape Town conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) degree. His papers on South African fossil plants, including a final one on "Fossil plants from the Bokkeveld and Witteberg beds of South Africa" (Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London, 1932) formed the foundation of local taxonomic palaeobotany.

Seward was probably the most prominent international figure in palaeobotany for almost four decades. In recognition of his outstanding contributions he received numerous honours, including a Fellowship and the Murchison Medal (1908) and Wollaston Medal (1930) of the Geological Society of London; a Felloship (1898) and the Darwin Medal (1934) of the Royal Society of London; and honorary degrees from the universities of Oxford, Dublin, Geneva, Manchester, Toronto, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow, and St Andrews. He was president of the Geological Society of London during 1922-1924, of the International Union of Biological Sciences in 1931, of the British Association in 1939, and in 1930 presided over the Fifth International Botanical Congress. In South Africa he was elected an honorary member of the Geological Society of South Africa. After his retirement he settled in London, where he continued research on the tertiary floras of Mull and adjacent islands. When World War II (1839-1945) broke out he moved to Oxford, where he died.

List of sources:
Anderson, J.M. & Anderson, H.M. Palaeoflora of southern Africa. Rotterdam: Balkema, 1985.

British Association for the Advancement of Science. Report of the seventy-fifth meeting... South Africa, 1905.

Bullock, A.A. Bibliography of South African botany (up to 1951). Pretoria: Department of Agricultural Technical Services, 1978.

Cape of Good Hope. Report of the committee of the Albany Museum, 1909.

Corstorphine, G.S. Presidential address: The history of stratigraphical investigation in South Africa. Report of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, 1904, pp. 145-181.

Hall, A.L. A bibliography of South African geology.... Pretoria: Geological Survey, Memoirs No. 18 (1922), 25 (1927), 27 (1931), and 30 (1937).

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980).

[Obituary] A.C. Seward. Proceedings of the Geological Society of South Africa, 1942, Vol. 45, pp. lv-lvi.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Phillips, H. The University of Cape Town, 1918-1948: The formative years. University of Cape Town, 1993.

Proceedings of the Geological Society of South Africa, 1915, Vol. 18, p. xiii-xix and 1920, Vol. 23, p. xii-xvi: List of members.

Records of the Albany Museum, 1912, Vol. 2(4), paper by Seward.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

University of Cape Town. Honorary degrees awarded. http://www.uct.ac.za/about/honours/degrees/graduates

Compiled by: C. Plug