Skip to content

Dr John Etherington


Dr John Etherington, formerly Reader in Plant Ecology in the Department of Plant Science, University College Cardiff, died on 19 October 2018, aged 81.

John joined the Department of Botany, University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire (later renamed University College Cardiff) in 1962, having completed both his BSc and PhD at Imperial College, London.

His research mainly centred on physiological ecology and particularly on comparative studies between ecologically contrasting species (and later also on contrasting natural populations within species) in order to understand the physiological mechanisms enabling some species to tolerate specific environmental stresses.

His early work was focussed on the mechanisms by which some plant species tolerate soil waterlogging and he continued to work on this topic throughout his research career but also branched out into other areas of plant ecology, including other soil and aerial stresses.

He researched limestone heaths and their soil chemistry and also the physiological adaptations enabling some calcifuge species to survive in these soils. He also published on land use and land management. His lab was always pretty full and hosted a succession of research students/research assistants throughout his time at the university. His research work was highly regarded by his peers and this was recognised by the award of the T.H. Huxley Memorial Medal by Imperial College, London in 1977.

John was a long-standing member of the British Ecological Society. He served on the editorial board of the "Journal of Ecology" for a number of years in the 1970s and 80s and in the latter decade was appointed as one of the two co-editors of the Journal and served in this capacity for several years.

He also wrote a very widely acclaimed textbook “Environment and Plant Ecology”, the first edition of which appeared in 1975, followed by a second edition in 1982. He also had published two shorter textbooks: “Physiological Ecology” and “Soil Waterlogging.”

He was a very enthusiastic and gifted teacher and many students were turned on to plant ecology by his lectures and particularly by the field courses that he ran or taught on, some based in Cardiff, others in Bangor, but especially those at Malham Tarn Field Centre in the Yorkshire Dales.

He was a larger than life character, nearly always cheerful and smiling. His enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. He seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of a range of the sciences including chemistry, geology, biophysics as well as a very wide range of aspects of botany and ecology and was invariably the first person one would consult when you had a query or problem. He was very interested in the work of his colleagues and was always keen to discuss ideas, to help or collaborate.

Most of us were very surprised when he opted to take an early retirement package in 1988, upon the merger of University College Cardiff and UWIST. He was only 51 and very active and successful in his research. He stayed on in a part-time teaching capacity for a further two years before retiring fully in 1990.

Soon afterwards, he and his wife, Sheena, moved from Llancarfan to the parish of Solva in Pembrokeshire where they had a holiday cottage. As one would have predicted, John was incredibly active throughout his long retirement.

He was a prolific correspondent to local and national newspapers and science periodicals on a range of environmental issues. He was determined to challenge views and policies that he felt were based on misleading, incomplete or biased evidence or arguments. One example was his ardent opposition to wind farms which he thought are environmentally and aesthetically harmful and totally unable in practice to generate anywhere near the claimed energy output.

He also deplored the massive financial subsidies given to such developments, ultimately to be borne by the consumers. He produced a book, “The Wind Farm Scam”, published in 2009, which typifies his writing, being based on cogent arguments, exposure of bunkum and false claims, clear presentation of facts and a thorough analysis and interpretation of data.

John had a massive influence on the thinking and attitude of the many students, colleagues and other people who knew him. Many will have transmitted his approaches and ideas to their own students, colleagues or associates. This is his lasting legacy!

Stuart Davies