The flora and fauna of Magdalen College

In a guest post for the New Phyt blog, Sandy Hetherington introduces a new exhibition, ‘The Flora and Fauna of Magdalen College‘ currently on display in Magdalen College, Oxford, UK, which celebrates the links between Magdalen College and New Phytologist.

Image: The Flora and Fauna of Magdalen College exhibition currently on display in the Old Library, Magdalen College Oxford. © Elizabeth Nyikos, 2018.
The Flora and Fauna of Magdalen College exhibition currently on display in the Old Library, Magdalen College, Oxford. © Elizabeth Nyikos, 2018.

The aim of the exhibition is to celebrate both the zoological and botanical history of the College. The fauna side of the exhibition describes the changes in animal life on the College site, from prehistoric woolly mammoths, to the working College animals and finally to the decorative animals in College today. The botanical side of the exhibition is divided into the three main themes: The Magdalen lilies, the Magdalen grounds and finally the rich history of links between Magdalen College, the Botanic Gardens and the teaching of Botany in the Oxford University.

So, what do the Magdalen lilies have to do with the links between Magdalen College and New Phytologist?

Lilies are the floral icons of Magdalen College. Three lilies are depicted on the coat of arms of the College and therefore lilies are found everywhere, reproduced on everything from rowing oars, to ornate College wallpaper. Alongside their decorative role, lilies were also the focus of botanical research carried out by a member of the College, Robin Snow.

Image: Photograph of George Robert Sabine Snow, ‘Robin Snow’ FRS (1897–1969). Magdalen College ref number MC 01/P1/1 p. 88.
Photograph of George Robert Sabine Snow, ‘Robin Snow’ FRS (1897–1969). Magdalen College ref number MC 01/P1/1 p. 88.

George Robert Sabine Snow, ‘Robin Snow’ FRS (1897–1969), was a fellow of Magdalen between 1922 and 1960. Robin and his wife, Christine Mary Snow, carried out ground-breaking experiments on the nature of plant development, especially on the development and arrangement of leaves, known as phyllotaxis.

The Snows worked on a range of plant species in their research, and Robin even carried out a study on the phyllotaxis of Lilium candidum – the species of lily represented on the Magdalen College coat of arms. In a paper published in New Phytologist in 1958 Robin described the arrangement of leaves in Lilium candidum, demonstrating that the leaves were arranged in a spiral that followed the Fibonacci sequence (Snow, 1958). In the exhibition we were lucky enough to have on display the original issue featuring Robin’s work from the New Phytologist archive.

Image: Spiral phyllotaxis in leaves of Lilium candidum. Figure from Snow, R., 1958. Phyllotaxis of Kniphofia and Lilium candidum. New Phytologist, 57(2), pp.160-167.
Spiral phyllotaxis in leaves of Lilium candidum. Figure from Snow, R., 1958. Phyllotaxis of Kniphofia and Lilium candidum. New Phytologist, 57(2), pp.160-167.

Further research on the Snows revealed that much of their ground-breaking work was published in New Phytologist. In fact almost half of all Robin Snow’s research papers from his career (30 of the 65) were published in New Phytologist (Clapham 1970) – and these papers have together amassed over 1000 citations (Google Scholar, July 2018).

A potential reason for the strong link between the Snows’ work and New Phytologist may be the links between Magdalen College and Sir Arthur Tansley – the founder of New Phytologist. Sir Arthur Tansley held the post of Sherardian Professor of Botany in Magdalen College, 1927-1937, and was therefore in Oxford during the time that Robin and Mary Snow were carrying out much of their ground-breaking work.

Image: Photograph of Sir Arthur Tansley in the Magdalen College Book of members of the Senior Common Room.
Photograph of Sir Arthur Tansley in the Magdalen College Book of members of the Senior Common Room.

The links between Magdalen College and New Phytologist continue to be strong today. The current New Phytologist Tansley review Editor (a post named after the founder of the journal) is Prof. Liam Dolan FRS. Liam is also a member of Magdalen College, and in fact occupies the same position that Sir Arthur Tansley did while here – the Sherardian Chair of Botany. We are very grateful to New Phytologist for letting us display the original issue of Robin Snow’s 1958 paper for the exhibition, and we hope that the links between Magdalen College and New Phytologist continue on into the future.

The exhibition runs until 10 October 2018, and is open to the public every Wednesday afternoon from 14:00–16:30.

Sandy Hetherington

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References

Snow, R., (1958) Phyllotaxis of Kniphofia and Lilium candidum. New Phytologist 57:2, 160-167.

Clapham, A.R., (1970) George Robert Sabine Snow. 1897-1969. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 16, 499-522.