Palaeontology prize goes to Museum volunteer

The Marsh Award for Palaeontology was awarded to Dr William Blows in recognition of his huge contribution to the field of palaeontology.

Dr William Blows

Dr William Blows receiving the Marsh Award for Palaeontology

The Marsh Award for Palaeontology

The Marsh Christian Trust was founded in 1981 as a grant-making body by Brian Marsh, OBE. Over the past 30 years the Trust has developed an Awards Scheme, to provide recognition to those who modestly work to improve the world we live in. Recipients of Marsh Awards are always people who make a difference by selflessly contributing their time and energy to what they believe in.

In 2008 the Marsh Christian Trust entered partnership with the Natural History Museum to deliver awards in the field of palaeontolology.

William Blows

Dr Paul Barrett, one of the people who nominated William Blows expressed his appreciation of Bill’s work:

“Bill Blows has been collecting fossil vertebrate material from the Early Cretaceous Wealden sediments of southern England for more than three decades. During this period, he has recovered many scientifically significant specimens, all of which have been donated to the Natural History Museum and worked on subsequently by numerous national and international colleagues. Perhaps the most significant of these was a specimen of the rare armoured dinosaur Polacanthus foxii, although Bill has also excavated and donated specimens of the ornithopod dinosaurs Mantellisaurus and Iguanodon.

Bill has not only been active in specimen discovery and collection, but has also become a noted international authority on ankylosaurian dinosaurs – having done a part-time PhD on these animals at Birkbeck College. He has published around 10 papers on ankylosaur taxonomy, biostratigraphy and evolution in a variety of peer-reviewed international journals and edited volumes (usually as sole author) and several of these are highly cited. He is frequently asked to referee papers in this area and continues to make novel contributions of his own.

Bill has also written popular accounts of his work and delved into some of the historical aspects of dinosaur studies on the Isle of Wight during the 1800s. His early work was based primarily on Polacanthus, but has diversified to include other taxa from the UK and elsewhere, including ankylosaurs from North America and sauropods from the Wealden. He named a new species of Polacanthus in 1996 (P. rudgewickensis) and has also played a critical role in enhancing our understanding of the evolution of ankylosaur armour and Wealden vertebrate biostratigraphy.

Bill has carried out his palaeontological work in a purely ‘amateur’ capacity, never having been employed as a professional palaeontologist. However, given his internationally recognized expertise in this area the ‘amateur’ label does not do justice to his contribution to the subject. ”

Bill has done all of this work against the background of being a full-time healthcare professional (a mental health nurse) and now an academic who lectures on nursing at City University. Recently, he began volunteering his time at the Natural History Museum in order to help with the curation of material he has donated and to continue his research work on these specimens. His work has advanced the subject both within the UK and internationally, as well as delivering many excellent specimens to public collections, while genuinely being an ‘unsung hero’ who has conducted all of this work out of the limelight.

Dr William Blows

Dr William Blows

Curator Sandra Chapman also nominated William Blows for this award. In her words,

“William Blows’ background is in medicine rather than palaeontology and he continues to lecture in Department of Applied Biological Sciences, City University, West Smithfield, London.  As a clinician he has a long list of publications.   However, his contribution to ankylosaur taxonomy has also been considerable. He has also provided the Museum’s dinosaur collections with some valuable research material throughout his long association with the Museum.

He donated an Iguanodon skeleton in 1976 from the Wealden Wessex formation of the Isle of Wight (Barremian), Early Cretaceous that he collected in the sea cliffs close to Atherfield.  A full account, including pictures, of the excavation can be found in Blows W. T. 1978.

He also collected a much larger partial skeleton of Iguanodon bernissartensis from Compton Bay in the Wealden Wessex formation (Barremian) sea cliffs, Isle of Wight very close to the Polacanthus site,  and donated to the Natural History Museum in 1980.

In 1980 he presented to the Museum the partial skeleton of Polacanthus foxii, NHMUK PV R9293 that he collected from Compton Bay site, Isle of Wight. It was just the second skeleton of Polacanthus foxii ever found (1980). Several large complete cervical spines forming the neck armour were found which were not present in Fox’s original and holotype specimen NHMUK PV R175 collected in 1865 and also in the NHM dinosaur collections.

The dorsal surface of the pelvis in this new specimen is covered by a flat shield of armour with ornamentation and these are so beautifully preserved in this skeleton that shield pieces from NHMUK PV R9293 are currently on display in the Museum’s dinosaur gallery.

Some shield elements and dermal spines have also been figured in the Palaeontological Association  Field Guides to Fossils, no. 10, 2001, Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight,  p. 117, pl. 39 & p. 179,  text-fig 7.8, in the Palaeontological  Association  Field Guides to Fossils no. 14,  2011, English Wealden Fossils, p.397, text-fig. 26.2a., and recently in Dean & Tamura  2014 Dinosaurs of the British Isles. p. 279, figure 304 A-H.

The partial skeleton of Polacanthus rudgwickensis Blows, 1996 from Rudgwick Brickworks, Rudgwick West Sussex and housed in the Horsham Museum (HORSM 1998.1546) was made available for study by Bill and was able to bring the Horsham material to the NHM collections

Bill became particularly interested in Reverend William Fox because he felt his contribution to vertebrate palaeontology was enormous yet little was known about him. So he wrote William Fox’s biography that was published in 1983 William Fox (1813-1881), a neglected dinosaur collector of the Isle of Wight Archives of Natural History 11, (3), pp.299-313.

He also gave a talk on Polacanthus to a Vertebrate Palaeontology Symposium (SVP) in Bristol. His discoveries were covered in several newspapers and he appeared on TV. He was interviewed by David Bellamy in a Leeds Television Studio for a programme called ‘Don’t Just Sit There’. Bellamy also accompanied him with a film crew to the Isle of Wight. On another occasion he was filmed for TV on the Isle of Wight discussing the Reverend William Fox with presenter Edwina Silver”.

More about the award and previous winners

The Marsh Award for Palaeontology was presented for the 8th time on the 6 February 2017 and recognises individuals in the United Kingdom who have made a significant contribution to the field of palaeontology. The Marsh Award for Mineralogy was presented for the first time on the 6 February 2017 to recognise an individual who has made a contribution to the field of mineralogy in the UK.

Previous winners of the palaeontology awards:

  • 2008 Mr J Collins
  • 2009 Mr Stan wood
  • 2010 Dr Steven Sweetman
  • 2011 Robert Baron Chandler
  • 2012 Peter Austen
  • 2013 John Quayle
  • 2015 Dean Lomax

These Awards, run in partnership with the Natural History Museum, form part of a larger scheme of 75 Awards which the Trust runs in partnership with other charitable organisations across the areas of Heritage, the Arts, Social Welfare and Conservation.