On July 8, 2002, William Sarjeant died in Saskatoon. Bill
Sarjeant was a geologist, paleontologist, avid book collector,
fantasy writer, folksinger, Sherlockian scholar, and heritage
advocate; he was 66. He leaves his loving wife, Margaret
"Peggy"; his devoted daughterns, Nicola (Peter Ryan),
Rachel (Neil Sarjeant-Jenkins) and Juliet (Michael McKague); his
grandsons Tristan and Rowan Sarjeant-Jenkins; and many family and
friends throughout Canada and England to mourn his passing.
Bill Sarjeant had a long-standing interest in geology going back
to a childhood interest in rocks and dinosaurs (not so commonplace
then as now), which translated into his enrolling for an undergraduate
degree in Geology at Sheffield University in 1953. On successfully
completing his Bachelor's degree in 1956, Bill was faced with a
momentous decision, the nature and immediate results of which were
described by Bill himself in a retrospective article published in
1984, in which he said:
I had wanted to study dinosaurs but could find neither material nor
funding for this. Instead, I was given two choices: to work on
Carboniferous corals under Professor Moore's supervision, or to
study Jurassic dinoflagellates under Charles Downie. On the
whole, I was not keen on a thesis that involved much microscope
work; and I am still not clear how it came about that I chose
the latter alternative. Was it Charles' persuasiveness? Was
it that the word "dinoflagellate" was a beguiling echo
of the word "dinosaur"? Was it simply my liking for
Whatever the reason, in October 1956 I found myself on field
work in Yorkshire in Charles' company, collecting samples for
palynological study; for I had been set the task of determining,
whether dinoflagellates could indeed be utilised in the
stratigraphical correlation of Jurassic strata. We scrambled
about the Corallian rocks of Scarborough Castle Hill under
lowering skies; and, progressing inland, we sought to sample
the Upper Calcareous Grit at its outcrop in Howldale.
Here there was a slight contretemps. We were perched up on the
rock face when we heard a voice calling from below: "Look
here, look here, what do you chaps think you're doing up there?"
We looked down to see below us a large, moustached gentleman in
jodhpurs and gaiters, with large double-barrelled shotgun in
hand and large hound at heels, gazing up at us with face purple
with fury. I said to Charles: "This is where the supervisor
does his stuff!" and he descended hastily to face the
That gentleman was soon mollified. "I thought you were
quarrying chaps; I don't mind you working here if you are
Despite this slightly inauspicious start, Bill went on in his
doctoral thesis to demonstrate that fossil dinoflagellates were
indeed stratigraphically useful - the first thesis to show the
value that dinoflagellates have in dating rocks. To Charles
Downie should go the initial credit of conceiving that this
group of palynological microfossils might be useful, but Bill
proved it. In so doing, Bill paved the way for other major
studies in the field, including generations of students at Sheffield.
After completing his thesis in 1959, Bill was not initially
successful in finding a permanent academic position. He taught
school in 1959 and 1960 and served as what we would think of
today as "post-doc" at Keele and Reading, before
landing the lectureship at Nottingham in 1963. Despite the
uncertainty of these years, Bill began his palynological
writing career as he would go on - prolifically. By the end
of 1963, he had already published 17 articles on fossil dinoflagellates,
including several in highly prestigious journals such as Nature
and New Scientist. Retrospectively, this number could almost
be viewed as a slow start: during his tenure at Nottingham and at the
University of Saskatchewan, he produced another 167 papers, as author
or co-author, on palynological (mainly dinoflagellate) subjects,
giving a total of 184 in all.
Many of the micropaleontological articles that Bill has written
or co-authored have been important milestones in the field: they
include the first book on the subject - "Fossil and Living
Dinoflagellates", published by Academic Press in 1973.
Bill was at his most influential scientifically in bringing
together the results from three theses: his own; that of another
of Charles Downie's student's, Graham Williams; and that of his
own student, Roger Davey. The resulting monograph, entitled "Studies
in Mesozoic and Cainozoic Dinoflagellate Cysts", co-authored by Davey,
Downie, Sarjeant and Williams, was published as a
Bulletin of The British Museum of Natural History in 1966.
It was re-issued in 1983, an unprecedented step for such an apparently
arcane monograph. It remains a vital reference in fossil dinoflagellate
studies to this day.
Nor did Bill restrict his studies to fossil dinoflagellates. He
carried out detailed studies of another group of microfossils - the
acritarchs. He also became a major figure in the study of fossil
vertebrate trackways. Although in 1956 he had made that momentous
decision to focus the early part of his career on dinoflagellates,
as his career matured, he felt able to return increasingly to his
first paleontological love - dinosaurs. Or, at least, to the fossil
trackways of dinosaurs and their fellow vertebrates. In addition to
his 184 papers on dinoflagellates and other palynological topics,
Bill wrote or co-authored 55 papers on fossil trackways.
A record of 239 publications in two areas of major focus would alone
make for an outstanding career, but Bill had yet a third area of major
focus, the history of geology, which yielded another 36 publications.
Among these 36 was a massive and unprecedented benchmark in the
field – "Geologists and the History of Geology. An International
Bibliography from the Origins to 1978". The original volume,
published in 1980, ran to 4,526 pages. Later supplements added more
than another 4,000 pages. The only word to describe this achievement
is "stupendous", and for this work Bill justifiably received
the Sue Tyler Friedman Medal from the Geological Society of London in
1990 and the History of Geology Division Award from the Geological
Society of America in 1991.
Beyond these three fields, there is yet more: Bill's CV lists an
additional 18 articles on other aspects of paleontology, 19 on
other geological topics, mostly on mineralogy and, outside geology,
12 on local history and 2 on natural history. As an aficionado of
several fictional genres, Bill wrote 15 substantial works - reviews,
critiques and original pieces, including his 4 Rockall novels published
under the name Antony Swithin. In recognition of his tremendous
achievements, Bill was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of
Canada in 1995, an honour that Bill was rightly very proud of indeed.
That Bill's enormous productivity and range often bemused his students
and colleagues is easy to imagine. But there is evidence that it
sometimes even bemused Bill himself. One graduate student, Stan
Stancliffe, recalls Bill coming in to his office and asking: "Do
you remember that paper on acritachs that I wrote last May? I can't
remember where I submitted it - I seem to have lost all trace of it."
Stan thinks that that particular paper is still lost out there somewhere -
the one that got away.
Lest it be thought that Bill had only time for writing and no time for
people, nothing could be further from the truth. Alongside his
publication record, his teaching record is equally impressive. His
CV reveals that from 1972 to 2002, Bill contributed over 5,000 hours
of classroom time. Perhaps surprisingly, his busiest year, with over
300 hours, was his last year - 2001-2002. At a time of career when a
professor might be excused for retreating more into research - or even
lighter pursuits - Bill was contributing his most significant teaching
effort. He was still dedicating a lion's share of his time to students.
Over the years, Bill successfully supervised 12 doctoral theses and
6 master's theses. To many of his graduate students he was not just
a supervisor, but also a mentor, providing crucial stepping stones
in their careers and enriching their lives beyond measure.
Bill was many things: a devoted husband and father, a colleague,
a mentor, a teacher and a friend. He was scientist, geologist,
micropaleontologist, palynologist, ichnologist, historian of geology,
local historian, archivist, bibliophile, field naturalist, novelist,
teacher, communicator, folk musician - the list could continue. More
colourfully, he could be described as an enthusiast, an amateur in the
best Nineteenth Century sense of the term, a Renaissance Man. Whatever
words we use to describe him, his influence in and contributions to
this world have been huge by any standard - his legacy is rich and
lasting. It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that as we go forward
in life, we stand on the shoulders of giants. William Antony Swithin
Sarjeant was such a Giant. We will miss him.
Note: This article appeared in CAP Newsletter 25(2):6-8, 2002.