Early in his scientific career, Brian Gardiner, who has died aged 88, was seduced by fossils – the remains, shapes or traces of ancient organisms preserved in rock. Brian wanted to learn how these should be interpreted and classified and what they reveal about evolution. In the 1950s, working at Queen Elizabeth College, London (which has now merged with King’s College London), and using the collections of the Natural History Museum (NHM), he first studied fish embedded in Jurassic limestone formed 170-200m years ago. This period contains fearsome, primitive cartilaginous sharks, and the biggest bony fish ever – Leedsichthys, reaching 20 metres long.
Using anatomical clues, Brian unravelled a story of the “modernisation” of bony fishes as they evolved into the streamlined, fast-swimming, dominant group represented today by salmon and cod. Changes were discovered in fins, tails, teeth and jaws, and a reduction in the hitherto bulky external armour. Critically, there was the transition of softer cartilage into ossified discs in the backbone, a specialisation shared with amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, including humans. Brian became keen to explore wider relationships.
After Brian and one of his postdoctoral students, Ralph Nursall, featured in the press with a Canadian dinosaur – thought to be Albertosaurus – from the NHM collections, Brian was invited in 1963 to work at the University of Alberta, Edmonton, on secondment from Queen Elizabeth College. He identified fossils in their museum and mounted an expedition to the Spray River searching for specimens 200-250 million years old. Mysterious microfossils were among many that caught his attention. They did not appear to be whole animals. These “conodonts” are common and widespread globally and their many forms are keys to dating strata and locating sites for oil, gas and mineral exploration.
The scientific consensus was “fish teeth”, but fragments of worms, molluscs, crustaceans or plants remained possibilities. Brian came to the unconventional view that they were parts of a gill assembly used to sieve tiny plankton from the water. This informal insight later proved correct when fossil finds by others in Scotland and South Africa showed traces of articulation and soft anatomy to suggest the feeding apparatus of worm-like, jawless, bug-eyed creatures somehow related to modern hagfish. Overall, Brian helped lay the foundations for a department of vertebrate palaeontology in Edmonton and published the first Catalogue of Canadian Fossil Fishes (1966).
In London in 1969, he described as new to science seven kinds of “early-modern” South African fishes (palaeoniscoids). His base at Queen Elizabeth College was in the Old Coach House, a Harry Potteresque Georgian laboratory with creaking staircase, baby rattle light-pull, antique desk, muddle of microscopes, books and fossils and a dinosaur vertebral disc employed as an ashtray. Warm, humorous and welcoming, he was visited by biologists from around the world. His “philosopher’s den” became the international venue for young bloods keen to dismantle outmoded theories in palaeontology, comparative anatomy, biogeography and, indeed, scientific method.
I was one of Brian’s many fortunate students who engaged in debates with his visitors. You were only as good as the evidence you presented and the convention that professors should always hold sway evaporated. “Is this really the simplest explanation? “and “What will you accept as evidence against your idea?” became universal levellers.
Challenging discussions fostered by Brian stemmed, in part, from his working-class roots. He was born in Stroud, Gloucestershire. His mum, Amy Hill, came from the cloth trade; his dad, George, was a plumber and trade unionist who believed that opportunities came from a sound education and rigorous interrogation of facts. A gifted sportsman, Brian might have turned professional had the lure of nature not intervened. He was a crack shot with a rifle and played in the top division for Gloucester rugby club in the early 1950s.
Nonetheless, insects were his first enthusiasm, particularly those of agricultural importance in the rural Gloucestershire of his youth. From Marling school in Stroud, with a state scholarship, Brian was the first in his family to go to university, studying zoology at Imperial College London, where he specialised in entomology, and then taking a PhD in palaeontology at University College London, while a scientific associate at the Natural History Museum. He was appointed junior lecturer in biology in 1958 at Queen Elizabeth College, rising through the ranks to become professor in 1985.
Affronted by scientific dishonesty, he entered the controversy over the Piltdown Man fossil – heralded in 1912 as the “first Englishman” but shown in 1953 to be an outrageous fake, complete with mammoth bone “cricket bat”. From evidence contained in a battered trunk in the Natural History Museum, Brian pointed the finger away from the shady fossil collector Charles Dawson and other suspects, including the writer Arthur Conan Doyle, arguing that Martin Hinton, a disgruntled NHM curator, was the likely fraudster. Hinton would have been seeking to undermine his boss, Arthur Smith Woodward, who had trumpeted the fossil as a major discovery.
As Brian’s philosophy matured, he joined the “salmon, lungfish and cow” debate that smouldered in the correspondence section of the journal Nature in the late 1970s and early 80s. He worked with an Anglo-American team to firmly establish in 1981 that living and fossil lungfishes were, on shared specialisations, more closely related to animals with four limbs (tetrapods) than to bony fishes. He reviewed the higher-level classification of tetrapods in 1982 and demolished naïve “Adam and Eve” ideas on the evolution of vertebrates from water to land. Fossils, while important, sometimes had to take a back seat, he concluded. They could no longer be seen as literal “missing links” or direct ancestors of living relatives. Through scores of other papers, he made solid contributions to entomology, botany, nature conservation, and the history of science and medicine. He retired from King’s College London in 1998.
Two palaeoniscoid genera – Gardinerichthys and Gardinerpiscis – and the placoderm Austroptyctodus gardineri were named after him. He was delighted in 1994 to be elected president of the Linnean Society of London. This is where Darwin and Wallace delivered their original 1858 paper on the Origin of Species and is now a charity devoted to progress in natural history, conservation and sustainability.
Brian is survived by his wife, Elizabeth (nee Jameson), whom he married in 1961, their children, Nicholas, Catherine and Clare, and seven grandchildren.