Nancy Kirk 1916 – 2005:

Nancy Kirk, who died on 4th September 2005, was born in Mansfield on 15th June 1916. Her mother had died when she was a young girl, so she and her older brother were brought up mainly by their father, who had worked his way up from office boy to manager of a local factory. In 1935, as a pupil at Mansfield’s Queen Elizabeth’s Girls’ Grammar School, she won an exhibition to go up to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she read Natural Sciences. As a student she never had much money, and despite her frugal lifestyle (which continued for the rest of her life) she was always so broke that she cycled home at the end of each term.
Nancy originally intended to specialise in Botany, but found the teachers very dull. She was, however, inspired by some members of the Geology Department, particularly Brian Harland, Teddy Bullard, and Professor O.T.Jones. In 1939 she achieved first class marks in the geology finals examinations (this was before Cambridge awarded degrees to women) and was awarded the Bathurst Prize. The award of a Harkness Scholarship, followed by a Bathurst Research Studentship, allowed her to start research on the geology of the faulted country of part of what is now called Powys, between Pont Faen and Presteigne, under the supervision of O.T.Jones.
Her studies were interrupted by the war. In 1942, following a period in the Land Army, she was sent to the Royal Ordnance Factory, where she was involved in war work until 1945. Her experiences there were important in moulding her life, both in terms of the factory floor language that she often used, and in her attitudes to authority. On one occasion she produced a report on why so many bombs produced at the factory were being rejected. She had found that a critical part in one machine had been fitted back to front. The only apparent result of her report was that she was banned from any further checking of machinery!
Nancy returned to Cambridge in 1945 on a two year Jenner Research Fellowship, after which she supported herself on money that she had saved. She was awarded her PhD in 1949, and then worked at Birmingham University for a couple of years, before moving to live in her field area, where she continued her geological mapping. It was during this period that she submitted some very long, detailed papers on her research to the Geological Society, and felt that the editor’s demands for major cuts were due to a chauvinistic attitude to science. Unfortunately she did not feel able to consult anyone else about the problem, and years later admitted that she should have taken more note of the fact that the Society had problems with paper rationing and was advertising the fact that they could not print any long papers. The research was never published, although Xerox copies of her map and thesis were sought-after objects by later workers.
In 1953 Nancy was appointed assistant lecturer in the Geology Department at Aberystwyth, and promoted to full lecturer in 1955. She continued working in the department long after her official retirement in 1983. At first, as one of four academic staff in the department, she had a heavy teaching load, mostly involving palaeontology, stratigraphy and map interpretation. With additional appointments, particularly in the 1960s, she managed to find more time for research. She is remembered by generations of students for the care and effort that she put into teaching, particularly the help that she gave to people who were having difficulties. She was also memorable for her dress sense (usually looking like she had just come in from the field), and her colourful language.
When, in the late 1960s, Nancy Kirk first presented her ideas about the ecology, mode of life and evolution of the graptolites to the Geological Society of London, neither she, nor the shocked graptolite experts, had any notion that the study of graptolites would take over the rest of her life. She had formulated the concept of graptolites as active colonies, using co-ordinated feeding currents to move up and down through the water column, rather than the textbook picture of passive colonies, often shown as attached to floating seaweed (although Bulman had already discarded this notion). One implication was that the experts had always thought of, and illustrated, these fossils upside down.
Nancy had developed her ideas almost by accident. She was painting her cottage, with all of her possessions piled up under dust sheets, when she realised that she had forgotten where she had left the notes for her lectures to first year undergraduates. Rather than cause havoc to her decorating, she started to write out a new set of notes and, in the process, decided that there was no basis for the traditional interpretation of these important fossils.
Had the experts simply nodded at the end of her talk, and allowed her paper to be published, she would probably have left it at that. But the condemnation of her ideas, and attempts to censor her paper, reminded Nancy of her previous run-in with the Society’s editors. She was not going to make the same mistake again. The decorating was forgotten, and for decades her possessions remained under the dust sheets.
From the early 1970s graptolite research took over much of her time. Determined to show that her ideas were supported by evidence, she embarked on a major study of the detailed structure of a complex group, the retiolites. In conjunction with her colleague, Dr Denis Bates, she spent hours every week examining samples under the scanning electron microscope, and then months poring over the accumulated images. While Denis was the expert in specimen preparation and operation of the microscope, it was Nancy who turned their joint ideas into marvellous three dimensional models. A number of beautifully illustrated papers, containing some radical new interpretations, was eventually produced, although much remains to be published. Their work gained them an international reputation and the next edition of the graptolite Treatise will draw heavily from their work.
Apart from her academic work Nancy will be remembered partly for the beautifully decorated pots that she made, but mostly for the magnificent garden that she created around her cottage on an isolated three acre site near Llanafan in the Ystwyth Valley. She began by planting a set of formal rose gardens, but soon ripped these out and developed a flowing palette of azaleas and rhododendrons. Most were grown from cuttings, usually taken with permission, but once the garden began to mature she concentrated on growing new varieties from her own seed. The names she gave to these new varieties reflected her impish sense of humour.
Living in isolation mostly suited Nancy, as she was able to indulge her taste for discreet naturism. In later years she would laugh at the memory of an unexpected visit from a rather prudish senior colleague and his wife, who arrived as she was fixing slates on her roof, clad only in her walking boots. She did start to worry for her safety when, in the late 1970s, the valley was subjected to an annual invasion of hippies collecting magic mushrooms. Several properties were burgled, but fortunately they never found her garden in the woods. Eventually she moved into a bungalow closer to Aberystwyth, where she created a couple of miniature gardens.
Whatever she was doing Nancy was single-minded in pursuit of her goal. When, at one point, there were problems with funding a new scanning electron microscope, Nancy produced much of the money from her bank account as she wanted to get on with her research. She would rope in helpers for any of her projects, and many remained willing workers for years. She could never have produced her Llanafan garden without the help of John Corfield, who first met her when she was scrounging plants from the Aberystwyth botany gardens.
Like many at Cambridge in the 1930s, Nancy was a committed Marxist. She found much of modern consumer culture distasteful, was particularly concerned about the rapidly increasing world population, and had little time for most modern politicians. Nancy never married, although there were hints that she may have been remaining true to the memory of a close friend who was killed in the Spanish Civil War. It was appropriate that the Red Flag was played as her body was carried to its green burial.

Nancy Kirk    Retiolites model

obituary by Anthony Wyatt

There is a collection in memory of Nancy for something with the “Wildlife Trust for South and West Wales (North Ceredigion Section)”. That’s what a cheque should be made out to. Hope to find something appropriate to spend it on when we get final money in. Please send cheques to Denis – address on Contact page. Nancy Kirk Memorial

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