A short history of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield

Old zoology museum


Sheffield's reputation for work in Animal and Plant Sciences was established well over a century ago. From 1888 Professor Alfred Denny, whose name is commemorated in the building now occupied by the Department, was Professor of Biology at Firth College which became the University of Sheffield in 1905. In 1908 separate Departments were established of Botany, under Professor B H Bentley, and of Zoology, under Denny who continued as its head until 1925.  Denny was succeeded in as Chair of Zoology by Professor HG Cannon (1926-1931).  Both Departments were very small at this time and largely devoted to teaching, though Professor Cannon had research interests in the functional biology of crustaceans.  There were rather few biology students, and both Departments relied heavily on the teaching they provided to medical and dental students.

Cover and page from 'The Invertebrata'

A R Clapham


During the 1930s research slowly began to develop into a more significant activity for both Zoology and Botany Departments. 

In Zoology, Professor LES Eastham, renowned for his studies on insect respiration, and coauthor of the standard text book on invertebrates used by students for some 30 years, took over as head of Department in 1931, and the research profile of the Department was raised by a series of appointments of well known researchers in fields such as malacology, vertebrate morphology, and medical entomology. However, during the Second World War, expansion ceased, and the decade after 1945 saw little development of new research in zoology at Sheffield, although teaching activity grew as the numbers of science students increased.

On the botanical side, Professor W H Pearsall FRS, successor to Bentley in 1938, played a major part nationally in developing the study of plant ecology. Pearsall made seminal contributions to the study of the vegetation and environmental conditions of the English Lakes and to terrestrial ecology (his New Naturalist book Mountains and Moorlands is a classic). The ecological focus was further strongly developed by Professor A R Clapham, CBE, FRS (1944-1969), distinguished for his taxonomic and ecological studies of British plants: he was coauthor of the well-known Flora of the British Isles - the standard UK Flora for many years - and founder of the long running series: Biological Flora of the British Isles.  Clapham made a number of appointments of noted researchers in botany during his long tenure, establishing a strong international botanical research reputation for the Department.

The Scala cinema - home to the Botany Dept

Alfred Denny Building under construction

Prof and Mrs Willis doing fieldwork at Bibury


In 1961 plant ecology research was further strengthened by the establishment, within the Department, of the Unit of Grassland Ecology (which later become the NERC Unit of Comparative Plant Ecology)  headed first by Professor IH Rorison, and then by Prof JP Grime FRS, which became widely known for its work on plant strategies and screening plants for their ecological attributes. From 1965-1969 Professor JL Harley, CBE, FRS, added a further ecological dimension with his research on mycorrhizas, establishing plant-fungal interactions as a significant research area in the Botany Department, continued to the present with the work of Prof DJ Read FRS, and others.  Professor A J Willis took over as head of Botany in 1969, maintaining the research emphasis on plant ecology: he established and maintained what has become one of the most comprehensive long-term monitoring studies of semi-natural grassland vegetation in the world, at Bibury in Gloucestershire.

An important development during this period was the establishment of a major centre for research in photosynthesis (the Robert Hill Institute) under Professor DA Walker FRS (1969-1993). This Institute is unique in the UK in studying photosynthesis from the ecological to the molecular level and involves staff from the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.

Research in Zoology took on a major new direction with the appointment of Prof I Chester Jones (1958-1981) whose recruitment of staff in vertebrate endocrinology, and the new area of insect endocrinology, established a major research reputation in this field for the Zoology Department at Sheffield over the next two decades. 

Towards the late 1970s and early 1980s retirements, and new appointments in areas other than endocrinology (e.g. Prof TR Birkhead, Prof P Calow), began a shift in research emphasis towards areas of evolutionary biology, behavioural ecology and animal ecology, establishing the foundation on which the current strengths in those areas have been built.

In 1988, as part of a major rationalization of what was, by then, a total of eight different biology departments at the University, Botany and Zoology were merged to form the new Department of Animal and Plant Sciences. Prof DH Lewis, the then head of Botany, successfully oversaw the diplomatic and practical challenges of the merger and, as the first head of APS (1988-1995), built on the well established research reputations of both Botany and Zoology to develop an increasingly interdisciplinary whole organism biology department.

Experiment at Tapton Gardens

Arthur Willis Environmental Centre


The new department integrated well and through the 1990s a series of new appointments first under Prof Lewis, then Prof JA Lee, both developed and diversified the Department's research strengths in areas such as evolutionary ecology, photosynthesis, aquatic ecology, pollution ecology, plant ecology, and epidemiology.  The quality of research in APS (and other areas of biology at Sheffield) was reflected by the 5* (maximum) score for research in the first (2001) HEFCE Research Assessment Exercise.

As a result of the merger, teaching initiatives that took advantage of the closer integration between botany and zoology became both practical and successful, with new degrees in Ecology and Biology becoming core elements in the degree portfolio, and undergraduate student numbers steadily increasing.  The quality of teaching was recognized in the award of the maximum score in the QAA Teaching Quality Assessment in 1999.

The expansion of the Department, in terms of both numbers of staff and research fellows, and breadth of research activity, continued under Prof MC Press (2003-2008), Prof L Maltby (2008-2012) and their successor, Prof M Siva-Jothy, who now leads a Department of over 30 academic staff and research fellows.  As the University enters it's second century, Animal and Plant Sciences is firmly established as one of the leading whole organism biology Departments in the UK.

The above summary derives in large part from "The History of Animal and Plant Sciences In Sheffield" a booklet written by Dr L Hill, formerly of APS, in celebration of the Department's centenary.  A PDF version of this booklet can be downloaded from the link on the right (note: the file has been reduced in size for the web, with consequences for image quality; if you would like a printed copy then please get in touch with us).