Professor Grenville 'Gren' Llewellyn Lucas OBE BSc FLS FRGS (20 Dec 1935–12 Dec 2022): Botanist, Conservationist and Champion of the Linnean Society

Gren Lucas was energetic in his ability to identify potential and make change, and we are incredibly fortunate at the Society to have been able to call him our friend and ally.

Published on 13th December 2022

Gren Lucas, powerhouse plant conservationist, was born in Cardiff, Wales in 1935. As a schoolboy, his interest in wildflowers was encouraged by his mother, a teacher (who helped him deal with what he felt was his undiagnosed dyslexia), and botanists at the National Museum of Wales. On leaving school he was first employed as an industrial chemist working for a Distillers’ Company subsidiary, British Resin Products, which helped create the eponymous armour for the British Army’s Chobham tanks. While attending the University of Hull, whose department of botany was headed by Professor Ronald Good, he developed an interest in plant taxonomy and phytogeography, and graduated in 1958. There he met his future beloved wife Shirley; they were married in Kenya during his first overseas assignment at the East African Herbarium in Nairobi, Kenya. Gren had previously worked in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as a research student sponsored by the Colonial Office. The preparation of the multi-author Flora of Tropical East Africa continued throughout his time at Kew, whose staff he joined on returning from Africa in 1962; the project was completed in 2011.

Gren Linnaean Herbarium, poss 1970s

Gren studying the specimen of Linnaea borealis in the Linnaean herbarium collections earlier in his career, in the vault in Burlington House. (The Linnean Society of London)

Plant Conservation

Gren Kew 1993

Gren looking out over the grounds of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, whilst Keeper of the Herbarium in 1993. (Ruth Stiff)

Gren’s field experience in Africa had heightened his commitment to plant conservation, and his subsequent career allowed him to play an increasingly prominent role in supporting international conservation initiatives.

In 1972, with the growth of international concern for conservation and the threat from unrestricted exploitation of wild plants in commerce, governments met to conclude a treaty on international trade in endangered species. Gren was the British representative, and one of very few botanists present. He exerted much influence on how the provisions on plants were drafted, noting the key differences from animals. CITES, as the Convention became known, was at the heart of Gren’s conservation activities for the decades that followed, with the UK’s CITES Scientific Authority for Plants based at Kew and firmly under his control.

In 1974, Gren was appointed as head of a new Conservation Unit, and arranged for Kew to host the Threatened Plants Committee, a new organ of Peter Scott’s Species Survival Commission (SSC), itself a part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). This was to be the beginning of Gren’s long association with IUCN, in which he was honoured as Peter Scott’s chosen successor as Chairman of SSC, serving on the Council of IUCN from 1978 to 1990.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Gren was a pioneer of global plant conservation and Kew grew to be the centre of plant conservation efforts. He convinced and cajoled botanists to provide information on which species were in danger and in need of attention, and in 1978 with the assistance of Hugh Synge the IUCN Plant Red Data Book was published. The growing team soon had a database of many thousands of at risk species of plants from around the world. The Unit also helped train customs officers at Heathrow and elsewhere in how to spot illegal plant imports, and it eventually became the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, based in Cambridge. He also kickstarted an initiative for botanic gardens to become more involved in conservation, helping organise two conferences on this theme at Kew; this led to the establishment in 1987 of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) under the auspices of IUCN. One of the outcomes of this initiative was the innovative Kew Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place in Sussex, conceived in 1992, and under the driving force of Roger Smith OBE, completed in 2000. Throughout this time Gren was widely sought as a board member, adviser and lecturer. He was a stalwart supporter of the Council for Nature, served for two terms on the board of English Nature (now Natural England), and became a Trustee of WWF-UK.

At home and abroad

Gren was a committed bibliophile, and under his direction Kew’s publishing activities were greatly expanded. He acquired the rights to publish Curtis’s Botanical Magazine from the Royal Horticultural Society, and continued to support the house journal Kew Bulletin. Having been appointed as Keeper of the Herbarium and Library in 1984, the focus of his work shifted somewhat, and after stepping down from the Keepership in 1995, he was appointed as head of a newly created Information Services Department at Kew, embracing computer services, library, media resources and publications.

Gren and Shirley Lucas

Gren and his wife Shirley at an event for Curtis's Botanical Magazine in the US in 1988. (Ruth Stiff)

Abroad, he advised the group which eventually secured designation of the Chagos Archipelago as a Marine Conservation Zone in the final weeks of the last Labour Government. He helped to found the National Campaign for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (now Plant Heritage), and served as its secretary until 1998.

The Linnean Society

In his retirement, Gren found a new focus for his energies at the Linnean Society of London, having joined as a Fellow in 1960. Elected as Treasurer in 1995, he helped to spearhead initiatives to expand its influence over government policy on systematic biology research. Under his guidance, the Society’s rooms at Burlington House, Piccadilly were refurbished following a fraught period when the UK government questioned the five learned societies’ rights of occupancy of their premises. A new lift was installed, and a dedicated archive store was created.

Having managed Kew’s entry into the digital age, Gren now energetically pursued the aim of making the Linnean Society’s historic collections accessible online. Using income from sales of the Society’s journals, he oversaw the Linnean Online website, hosting digital images and data of the Society’s Linnaean and Smithian collections, involving partners such as the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Appalled by the lack of government support for taxonomic research in UK universities, he helped set up the CoSyst and SynTax projects in collaboration with the Systematics Association, deploying funds extracted with some difficulty from BBSRC and NERC. Although these initiatives have ended, the Linnean Society continues to support the LinnéSys: Systematics Research Fund from its own resources.

Gren Lucas Gold Medal

Gren (right) being surprised by then-President David Cutler with the Linnean Gold Medal in 2007 - only the third ever recipient of this prestigious award. (The Linnean Society of London; photo by D. Pescod)

For his services to conservation, he was awarded an OBE in 1980, the Orde van de Gouden Ark (Order of the Golden Ark) by Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands in 1985, and the Busk Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1997. He received the Linnean Society’s Gold Medal in 2007, only its third recipient; its executive secretary wrote that ‘anyone who has worked with Gren knows how committed he is to the Society and how well he deserved the Award’.

Gren’s openness, drive and love for nature impacted everyone he met, and encouraged many of us to work hard for the good of the natural world. He will be sorely missed.

John Edmondson FLS

(Additional information is courtesy of Hugh Synge, who passed in 2018; his friendship with Gren helped inform this obituary.)

A further in-depth piece about Gren will appear in an issue of The Linnean in 2023.

Anjali Goswami, President, Linnean Society

I first met Gren around 15 years ago, when he was Treasurer and I was a recent arrival as a new lecturer who didn’t know many people in the UK. It was immediately obvious that Gren was the Society’s rock, and he was so welcoming, warm, and enthusiastic that I knew this was a community I wanted to be part of. Over the years, I had the pleasure of serving on Council with him and last saw him just in October for a committee meeting, at which I marvelled at his tireless commitment and dedication, not to mention his vast understanding of every aspect of the Society. His incredible contributions served as a model to so many of us, and among his many important legacies is that he inspired many people like myself to follow in his footsteps of service to the larger community. Mine is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of similar stories of people who have been impacted by Gren’s generosity and spirit

Susan Gove, past-Collections Committee Chair, Linnean Society

I was very fond of Gren. No one has done more for the Society over many years.

I often think of us walking down Piccadilly to an antiquarian bookshop to view a binding which had been suggested as suitable for the Society's copy of the 12th edition of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae. We met David Attenborough on the way. Gren and he welcomed each other warmly as old friends and I was introduced. Gren invited him to join us as we were having tea at Sotherens. Our mission was successful and we were able to enjoy Audubon's Birds of North America which had recently arrived.

One of many happy fond memories.

Andrea Deneau, Digital Assets Manager, Linnean Society

I first met Gren in 2010 when I started working at the Society on a freelance project. During this time, with much credit going to Gren, the Library received a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to conserve and digitise the Linnaean annotated library, the Alfred Russel Wallace notebooks, and the Buchanan-Hamilton watercolours. With this grant, the Society was able to purchase, for the first time, in-house digitisation equipment. Knowing my freelance project was coming to an end, and happy with the work I had been doing, Gren recommended that I take on the Digitisation Project Officer role. He was very supportive during my first few years in the role, recognising the value of gaining on-the-job experience. He was always fascinated with the projects we continued to take on, and always took the time to ask lots of questions and really get to know what I was doing. Gren also recognised the importance of managing our growing digital collections, and it was his vocal support that led to the creation of my permanent role of Digital Assets Manager. While Gren’s appearances at the Society became less frequent over the past few years, during those earlier years, I always felt I could speak to him about anything, and I would receive good, honest, supportive answers. But more importantly, we always just had lovely chats about anything and everything. It is Gren I have to thank for my now well-established career at the Society.

Leonie Berwick, Publications Manager, Linnean Society

I remember meeting Gren at my interview at the Natural History Museum in late 2005, for the role of bringing together all of Charlie Jarvis' incredible work on Linnaean plant names for his book Order out of Chaos. Gren was a friendly and generous man, and very keen to talk about book binding—not my field of expertise, but his enthusiasm made it a very enjoyable conversation. After completing Order…, Gren offered me a role at the Linnean Society, where I would go on to produce many books and both our magazine Pulse and newsletter The Linnean.

The thing about Gren was, he truly believed in people, which is more rare than you might think. He was a great master at harnessing the potential he saw in everyone, and making it something tangible. Years ago, I had put together a proposal with a colleague to launch the Society’s first education programme, and we slipped it into his hands as he left Burlington House one day. He emailed us as soon as he got home, having read it on the train—I still remember his words, that he ‘punched the air’ and knew he had to find a way to make it happen. Of course he did, because he was Gren, and now we have a terrific education unit. All of his accolades and incredible scientific endeavours aside, he was a powerhouse for magnifying people’s potential and their development. Many of us owe him so much. On a more personal note, he gave my daughter her first bike. I will always remember that, and I will miss him.

Isabelle Charmantier, Head of Collections, Linnean Society

Gren Lucas was a driving force behind a lot of the Linnean Society projects. Working at Kew, he could see what scientists needed from a Society like ours; he was not afraid to come up with ambitious projects for our collections, and was then adept at sourcing funding for them. I came onto the staff team for the last major Mellon Foundation grant we received, which included the digitisation, conservation and cataloguing of the Linnaean manuscripts. I owe Gren my dream job, working with the collections of the Linnean Society, and for that I will always be grateful. Gren endlessly championed projects like the Linnaean Plant Name Typification Project, or the Linnaeus Link Union Catalogue—important projects that have made the Linnean Society what it is today.

Hassan Rankou, Journal Editorial Manager, Linnean Society

I am so sad about the loss of Gren. Gren supported me so much in my PhD. His IUCN Red plant data book (1978) was an inspiration which I followed on my PhD, 40 years after its publication. He also supported me so much before my postgraduate studies and was the reason that I have been involved with the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society for so long.

A beautiful and very welcoming human being! It was always a joyful moment to meet him in the Linnean Society; I remember all of them because of the special way he welcomed me every time, and the way he appreciated my commitment to the Society.

My sincere condolences to his family and friends.

John Beswith FLS, past-Treasury/Finance Committee member

What sadness to read of Gren’s passing. Reading the tributes published, the full significance of his work struck me; the Linnean is not a wealthy Society yet under the guidance of Gren, it has accomplished much. His accomplishments are extraordinary and too many to list: the refurbishment and upgrade of our premises in Burlington House with installation of the new lift; room upgrades to allow for any potential growth in Room Hire; the securing of Mellon Foundation funding to finance the digitisation of the Society's Collections and records; the purchase of Toynbee House to provide premises for Society activities; protecting our Charitable Status by championing Educational Outreach; responding to legislative changes affecting our journals; the securing of an improved publishing deal that better underwrites Society finances…

There is no doubt much more to add, as these achievements just came off the top of my head whilst remembering and paying a mental tribute to Gren, and the privilege I had sitting on the Treasury Committee during part of his tenure.

Maha A. Kordofani FLS, plant taxonomist and herbarium curator, University of Khartoum

My first contact with the late Professor Grenville Lucas was in 1984 in Kew herbarium while I was doing my M.Sc. research in the first step of my career. He was then a great help and he had great influence in my admiration for the field of plant taxonomy. For that I am greatly indebted to him. Since then, our relation grew greatly through my frequent visits to Kew herbarium and the Linnean Society and he had always being there for me. One of his great reflections on my career was his valuable recommendation for me when he was chosen by my university (University of Khartoum-Sudan) as one of the assessors for my professorship status. I used to consult him a lot throughout my work with the Kew herbarium team in preparing the checklist of the wild plants of Sudan and South Sudan.

His absence as a great scientist is a great loss for everybody in the field of taxonomy and everyone belonging to this field internationally.

Elaine Shaughnessy FLS, Linnean Society Trustee

As Head of Development for the Linnean Society of London (2006­­­–2009) I had the privilege and pleasure of working closely with Gren Lucas. Gren was inspirational and always full of energy and ideas. In 2006, the Society began a programme of development and the President, Officers, Council and staff began the drive of major change as well as initiating plans for celebrating key anniversaries including the 300th anniversary of Linnaeus (2007), the 150th reading of the Darwin-Wallace paper on the theory of evolution (2008), Darwin 200 and the 250th anniversary of the Society’s founder, Sir James Edward Smith.

Gren was integral to the planning and execution of all projects and provided the vision for the beautiful refurbishment of the premises which he tirelessly oversaw. No attention to detail was spared including the glass in the Library roof which was copied from a remaining piece of glass not destroyed by the bomb blast in the war. Notable projects included the substantial digitisation programme for all Society journals published since 1791, the 14,600 Linnean taxonomic specimens and 20,000 botanical specimens of Sir James Edward Smith, and the conservation and digitisation of the 4,000 letters written to Linnaeus from 600 correspondents worldwide. The Linnean Typification Project was completed in 2007 culminating in the publication of Order out of Chaos: Linnean plant names and their types (C. E. Jarvis 2007). All this was achieved by Gren’s careful marshalling of funds and through fundraising initiatives, including support from the Fellows and a capital development programme.

It was a pleasure to meet up with Gren very recently at an evening reception at the Society, less mobile but as lively and inquisitive and engaged as ever. I am grateful for his mentorship and his friendship and for making my wonderful time at the Linnean Society intense, challenging and also great fun.