Bernard Verdcourt (1925-2011): Appreciation and obituary.

By B. Rowson, P. Tattersfield, J. Gallichan & B. Verdcourt

Extracted from Journal of Conchology 40, pp.681–704


Photo of Bernard Verdcourt in 1985, aged 60The botanist and malacologist Bernard Verdcourt (b. Luton, UK 20 January 1925 – d. Maidenhead 25 October 2011) was a member of the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland since 1943, a former President (1969-1970), and one of the most prolific contributors to its publications. A stickler for accuracy, like A. E. Ellis before him, Bernard drafted his own obituary for this Journal, in which he published over 70 papers. Obituaries elsewhere reflect his broad interests and influence (e.g. Daily Telegraph, 1 November 2011). The authors knew or corresponded with him through our work and through the Society, although naturally largely in his later years. Here we present his own obituary, an appreciation of our own, and an index of his malacological works expanded from his own lists (1997f, 2002b, 2009) which are now no longer available.

A classical taxonomist, naturalist and biogeographer, Bernard published abundantly ensuring that much (if sadly not all) of his vast store of knowledge entered the public domain. In recent years he was keen to complete as much of this as possible before he died. Throughout his papers and notes, his writing was typically direct and efficient although in correspondence he sometimes allowed himself diversions into more personal areas. His malacological output was such that it can be difficult to believe it was the product of what time remained outside his career as a botanist, although his later refusal to be considered for promotion presumably helped him avoid many duties that would have distracted from research. Verdcourt became the world’s leading authority on East African non-marine molluscs, producing around 380 malacological publications introducing over 200 new names.

Bernard attributed the start of his interest in molluscs to an article on shells in a school magazine (1989a). A founder member of the Bedfordshire Natural History Society, he collected widely in Bedfordshire and Berkshire, submitting many records to the Society’s Census. He published studies of radulae throughout his late twenties, illustrating these and papers of T. Pain and L. W. Stratton with his own photographs.

Having wanted "to go and get a job in Africa" (Reynolds, 2004) he sailed to East Africa in 1949 as an officer in Britain’s colonial East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organisation. His responsibilities as a civil servant were to serve the public and they were almost entirely desk-based. He had little time for fieldwork and did not take part in any major expeditions, his collecting being restricted to holidays and during a few journeys elsewhere in East Africa as required by his seniors. However, it was less than a year before he had described his first new mollusc species, a hydrobiid from hot volcanic pools in the eastern Congo (1950b, 1951g) and he both consolidated and popularised the study of molluscs in East Africa throughout his stay. Bernard was initially based, although only for about a year and a half, in Amani in the forested East Usambara Mountains, north-east Tanzania, and he published a series of papers on the terrestrial fauna of the region (egs. 1951h, 1952e, 1953c, 1953d, 1953e, 1956c, 1957f). This included a synopsis and identification guide to the large number of species of Gulella (Streptaxidae) that occur in the East and West Usambara mountains (1958a), thus highlighting for the first time the major local radiation that occurs in the Mollusca, and especially in the Streptaxidae.

However, Bernard spent most of his career in Africa in the East African Herbarium in Nairobi, where he was regularly called upon for the identification (or as he called it, naming) of molluscs and other invertebrates. These included marine shells and he began a short series of papers on cowries (1954–1961) whose numerous subgenera prompted Bernard to complain in Nature (1956h). His contributions as Honorary Conchologist to the Annual Reports of the Coryndon Memorial Museum (now part of the National Museums of Kenya) show how long periods of home leave allowed him to visit collections and libraries in Europe. No mean task owing to the scattered literature in many languages, the compilation of his list of East African molluscs was begun and first mentioned in print (1956a; 1958g) over 25 years before its first publication (1983d).

Bernard’s numerous taxonomic reviews and descriptions of East African molluscs helped consolidate the disparate and often inadequate publications previously available, and this body of work is of great assistance to current researchers. For instance it is easier to build upon than that of his forerunner H. B. Preston (1871-1945), whose work he considered "indescribable" (1953h). Verdcourt was occasionally old-fashioned, for example never learning to use a computer, and he believed himself to be the last person to provide a Latin description in an animal protologue (see 1996e). However his taxonomic and other works are essentially modern in outlook. His contributions on East African biogeography (1972a, a Presidential Address to the Society, and 1984h), and his studies on Pliocene and Miocene fossil faunas (1963e, 1987d) significantly increased our understanding of former African environments. His contribution to Rodgers & Homewood (1982) ensured terrestrial molluscs their place in this classic treatment of the biodiversity importance of the Usambaras.

Bernard Verdcourt's bookplate

Figure 2. Bernard’s bookplate, signature and a
sample of his handwriting circa 1961.

Bernard lived through the turbulent times of the end of the colonial period in East Africa. Like many colleagues, he returned to Britain around Kenyan independence in 1964. He was appointed a Research Fellow at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, allowing him to continue his work on the African flora and fauna and now with much reduced administrative responsibility. A notice (1964c) indicates that he moved the spirit collection of molluscs to the British Museum (Natural History) (now the Natural History Museum) in London, including some types originally cited as being in Nairobi. A frequent visitor to London, he made regular depositions of types and other material, never keeping a collection of his own. Apart from an aide-memoire in the form of a ‘scrapbook’ of photographs and drawings (copies of which were sent to Nairobi and London [1981e]), Bernard relied on his remarkable memory, which allowed him to recall fine details of types and other material that he had examined many years previously. Many other Verdcourt types remained in the National Museum of Kenya, or are in other museums in Europe and the USA. Having initially sent material to H. Watson he recovered and distributed some of this after his death in 1959, the rest going to the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. Most of his radula slides went to the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren (1978c), whose collections he worked on several times. He was generous with his other donations: bound copies of his malacological publications, much of his archive and library, and material from the revision of Carychium with H. Watson (1953a) came to the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, and the glass negatives from his compilation of East African mollusc figures went to Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow (1991e). Part of his malacological library was donated to the Society to be auctioned in 2010.

Throughout his time at Kew, Bernard worked on British, European and Arabian as well as African molluscs whenever he was able. Many of his specimens came from plant collectors or even herbarium sheets. In England, he had a particular interest in the rare Thames valley species Perforatella rubiginosa (which he added to the British list and later surmised might be an introduction; 1982c, 1986g) and Balea biplicata (some threatened animals of which he translocated to his garden; 1966c). His many contributions to the Conchologists’ Newsletter, by turns scholarly and piquant, reveal a wry but warm sense of humour, especially his biographies and itineraries of past collectors in East Africa (1979-2002, now collated by P. Buckle and available on the Society’s website). These are of wide appeal, but pleasingly for the Society emphasise each collector’s malacological contributions. A great compiler, Verdcourt’s privately printed publications and contributions to the journal Achatina (see Appendix in Bank & Menkhorst, 2009) kept track of his continuing output of papers which appeared throughout the European malacological journals. An unpublished list of corrections and updates having been sent to London and Leiden in 1995, a greatly revised second edition of his mollusc list was finally published in 2006 (2006a). The full manuscript, now in the Natural History Museum, preserves many additional geographical records lost in the ruthless abbreviation needed to typeset the list. Verdcourt continued to work at Kew long after retirement and four days a week even in his eighties, until ill health forced him to stop in August 2008.

In the first of his articles on collectors in East Africa (1979b), Bernard wrote that "the only thing that really survives one is work". His own work, its boundaries blurred with pleasure no doubt, certainly will. However, and while he may not have appreciated it fully, his achievements also include his inspiration and encouragement of others. His enthusiastic response to requests for assistance on African molluscs in the late 1980s, and his continuing help during the 1990s, stimulated work on East African molluscs in the National Museum of Wales and helped foster interest in and close working relationships with the National Museums of Kenya and Tanzania. These projects have led to the development and extension of collections in both Africa and the UK, the establishment of locally based African curatorial staff with expertise in molluscs, and to fieldwork in hitherto malacologically unknown parts of East Africa.


Obituary by Bernard Verdcourt

"Bernard Verdcourt, the well known Kew botanist who has died aged [86], made contributions to two distinct fields of East African natural history, the vascular flora and the non-marine molluscs, over a period of some [60] years. Possibly as much as one fifth of the great Flora of Tropical East Africa was from his pen, including much of two major families, Rubiaceae and Leguminosae. Although always hoping to produce a major work on the East African molluscs, it never appeared but he left a mass of both published and unpublished materials towards it and was one of the very few people in Europe who could name molluscs from the area. Some years before his death he was delighted that a young ecologist Peter Tattersfield developed a deep interest in East African non-marine molluscs and was clearly going to continue the work.

Apart from a two year period in the mid-1970's which led to the publication of a manual of New Guinea legumes, he was almost entirely devoted to East African botany. Similarly he scarcely studied other molluscs but will be remembered for adding the snail Perforatella rubiginosa to the British list and his work (with Hugh Watson) on the minute snails of the genus Carychium in Britain. Louis Leakey whom he knew well in Kenya encouraged him to work on the Miocene molluscs which had been collected at Rusinga and elsewhere over a period of years by the Leakeys and their helpers. This study resulted in the publication in 1963 of a paper which has proved to be one of his most important works since he drew palaeoclimatic conclusions often quoted in works on human and ape evolution. He also contributed a chapter on fossil molluscs to Mary Leakey's work on Laetoli. It was at Louis Leakey's request that he took Jane Goodall down to the Gombe Stream Reserve in W. Tanzania for the first time when she began the studies which were to last for over a quarter of a century and have such far reaching results.

Although often pedantically accurate he was also prone to carelessness – one unkind commentator suggesting that he made mistakes in order to write yet another paper to correct them! He had in the end published over [1200] papers, many to be sure very short notes, but others of book length. [In a footnote Bernard refers to his 1996 list and indicates that a virtually complete set of them is in the Natural History Museum General Library, at 6q VER].

Bernard Verdcourt was born in Luton, Bedfordshire on 20 January 1925. His paternal grandfather was born in the village of Boirs near Liège, a hatter as were his antecedents back to the mid-1700's. He came to Luton (then the centre of the hat industry) in the mid-1890's but was not naturalised British until December 1909. It is possibly due to Bernard's maternal grandfather Charles Weston, a gamekeeper at Wellbury near Hitchin (Charles was reputed to be the illegitimate son of a lord; he was certainly illegitimate and Bernard's own family researches indicated a distinct probability that the 4th Earl of Carlisle was his (Bernard's) great great great great great grandfather) that Bernard owed his interest in natural history which he displayed at an early age in the absence of much encouragement. His father worked his way up from a poor background to a managerial position and was an all-round man, a considerable sportsman, artist and student of English literature but certainly with scant interest in the sciences. B.V. (as he became known to most colleagues) went to the then Luton Grammar School and thence to Reading University during the Second World War to train as a Radar Officer, gaining a degree in Radio Engineering, Physics and Chemistry. At the grammar school he had shown incredible knowledge of chemistry and had his own quite extensive laboratory in his bedroom at home where he carried out often dangerous experiments. The most amazing substances were then freely available to bona fide young scientists who were trusted to show common sense. His love of botany was, as in the case of several other Lutonian youngsters, fostered by the well known Luton amateur botanist John Dony and a growing interest in entomology by V.H. Chambers, the hymenopterist, who lived locally. After three years with PATRA (Printing, Packaging and Allied Trades Research Association) as a microscopist, mycologist, photographer and general dogsbody to Frank Armitage, he joined the East African Agriculture and Forestry Research Organisation in 1949 working for a year at Kew, then at Amani in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) under P.J. Greenway. He helped move the famous Amani Herbarium to its new building in Nairobi where it became the East African Herbarium, and is now part of the National Museum of Kenya.

Fifteen years of naming many thousands of specimens for various researchers and the public gave him an unrivallled knowledge of the East African flora and its literature, much called upon in later years by his more specialised colleagues. Time for research and collecting was very limited but he gained a Ph.D. externally in 1955 and made collections of over 4000 plants with many duplicates; very many of these are cited in the literature. His extensive collection of East African molluscs is scattered but mostly in the National Museum of Kenya, the Natural History Museum and museums in Leiden, Harvard and Frankfurt. In 1964, after six years as director in Nairobi, he returned to Kew where he worked first as a Principal Research Fellow and later as a Principal Scientific Officer until his retirement in 1987. He refused promotion to the next rank believing that others more worthy had been deliberately overlooked and irritated authority in a number of other ways, otherwise it is very likely he would have risen much higher. After his retirement he continued his work on the Flora of East Africa and also on Flora Zambesiaca and the Revised Flora of Ceylon including some of the fern families. He worked as a consultant but was taken back on the staff in 1998–1999 for a year.

He had an intense dislike of all sports and games, much to his father's regret, but did a little motor racing and rallying in East Africa actually finishing once in the very tough East African Safari (with A. Rogerson in his Peugeot 403). He had a fair knowledge of historic cars and a particular interest in the marque Peugeot; he contributed articles to the journal of the Club Peugeot U.K. He had always been very interested in insects and contributed over 150 notes and short papers to various entomological journals from the age of 19 onwards. His best finds were the rare flies Leopoldius signatus and Oxycera dives. He collected Meligethes beetles extensively in East Africa, obtaining numerous new species, also many new species of Neuroptera. In later years he was immeasurably saddened by the virtual extinction of insect life in Britain, the diversity of his childhood having disappeared.

Throughout his life he maintained his interest in Bedfordshire and was responsible for the first records of numerous organisms for the county and contributed to local literature including several biographical items to the Bedfordshire Magazine. He had a very good, extremely catholic, library of many thousands of volumes, the molluscan part of which has [largely] gone to the National Museum of Wales. He was very conscious of the importance of archives and anxious that unique material should go to an appropriate place.

Deep down he was very aware that he had scarcely done anything of real scientific worth, just a mass of descriptive materials, useful, requiring judgement and knowledge but scarcely any intelligence. He frequently said the only scientific fact he had ever discovered was the fact that mould spores swelled enormously in the presence of certain compounds with phenolic groups; this was briefly published but not followed up.

He was one of the Kew medallists for 1986 and President of the Conchological Society for 1969/1970. [Bernard was ultimately awarded the Gold Medal (now the Linnean Medal) of the Linnean Society of London in 2000. He was named a Corresponding Member of the Association of American Plant Taxonomists in 2008].

He was twice married, first to L. D. Crompton, a librarian, by whom he had a daughter, Helen Louise, and later to Helen Dadd (nee McInnes) a cat judge and wine merchant whom he had known since his Reading days, all three of whom survive him.

First draft by B. Verdcourt, Ewell, June 1989; second draft by B. Verdcourt, Maidenhead, May 1999."


Malacological names honouring Bernard Verdcourt

bernardi, Leptichnus van Goethem 1975 (van Goethem, 1975: 862); "Tanzanie, East Usambaras, Amani, Mt. Bomole" Leg. B. Verdcourt. (Urocyclidae)
bernardi, Gulella van Bruggen & van Goethem 1997 (van Bruggen & van Goethem, 1997: 25); nom nov. for Gulella sexdentata Taylor, 1880, non von Martens, 1869. (Streptaxidae)
Verdcourtia van Mol 1970 (van Mol, 1970: 167); type species Helicarion auriformis Thiele 1910. (Urocyclidae)
verdcourti, Burtoa nilotica subsp. Crowley & Pain 1959 (Crowley & Pain, 1959: 12); "…Rusinga Site R3, Kavirondo, Kenya, in Miocene (Burdigalian) calcareous sandstone". Leg. L. S. B. Leakey. (Achatinidae)
verdcourti, Limicolariopsis Crowley & Pain 1961 (Crowley & Pain, 1961: 26); "Kenya Colony; Mount Kenya, Western slopes, in bamboo-Dombeya association, Naro Maru River at 9700 ft." Leg. M. Coe. (Achatinidae)
verdcourti, Gulella van Bruggen 1966 (van Bruggen, 1966: 69); "South Africa, Transvaal, Magoebaskloof, Woodbush Forest, 5000ft". Leg. A. C. & W. H. van Bruggen. (Streptaxidae)
verdcourti, Leptichnus Forcart 1967 (Forcart, 1967: 563); "Mozambique, Amatongas Forest, 520m." Leg. A. C. & W. H. van Bruggen. (Urocyclidae)
verdcourti, Gabbiella Mandahl-Barth 1968 (Mandahl-Barth, 1968: 143); "Selemba Stream, Taveta, Kenya." Leg. Teesdale. (Bithyniidae)
verdcourti, Chlamydarion van Mol 1970 (van Mol, 1970: 118); "Monts Nyambeni (N-E du Mt Kenya), "upland rainforest, 6,500-7,500ft". Leg. Hemming, Howland & Verdcourt. (Urocyclidae)
viridarium, Pisidium Kuiper 1956 (Kuiper, 1956: 61); "Karura Fluß, 5 englische Meilen nördlich von Nairobi am Thika Road". (Name from "Verdcourt" translated literally into Latin). (Sphaeriidae)


We would like to thank others who have shared reminiscences and details with us including R. Polhill, M. B. Seddon, F. Naggs, C. Pain, C. F. Ngereza and A. C. van Bruggen.


BANK RA & MENKHORST HPMG 2009 A revised bibliography of the malacological papers of Paul Pallary. Zoologische Mededelingen Leiden 83 (5): 537–546. [With appendix dealing with the journal Achatina.]
VAN BRUGGEN AC 1983 On some terrestrial operculates (Mollusca, Gastropoda Prosobranchia) from Malawi with the description of two new species. Proceedings of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen Series C 86 (1): 1–14.
VAN BRUGGEN AC 1966 Two new species of Gulella from Southern Africa (Gastropoda, Pulmonata, Streptaxidae). Archiv für Molluskenkunde 95 (1/2): 69–73.
VAN BRUGGEN AC & VAN GOETHEM JL 1997 Dr. William Adam’s iconography of Central and West African Gulella species (Gastropoda Pulmonata: Streptaxidae). Part 1: nominal taxa. Bulletin de l’Institut Royal des Sciences Naturelles de Belgique Biologie 67: 5–30.
CROWLEY TE & PAIN T 1959 A monographic revision of the African land snails of the genus Burtoa Bourguignat (Mollusca–Achatinidae). Annales du Musée Royal du Congo Belge Tervuren: Sciences Zoologiques in–8º 78: 1–35.
CROWLEY TE & PAIN T 1961 A monograph of the African land snails of the genus Limicolariopsis d’Ailly (Mollusca–Achatinidae). Musée Royal de L’Afrique Centrale – Tervuren, Belgique Annales in–8º 101: 1–36.
FORCART L 1967 Studies on the Veronicellidae, Aperidae and Urocyclidae (Mollusca) of Southern Africa. Annals of the Natal Museum 18 (3): 505–570.
VAN GOETHEM JL 1975 Descriptions et diagnoses preliminaries d’espèces et genres nouveaux d’Urocyclinae. Revue de Zoologie Africaines 89 (4): 859–870.
KUIPER JG 1956 Pisidium viridarium, eine neue Art aus Ost-Afrika. Archiv f¨r Molluskenkunde 85 (1/3): 61–63.
MANDAHL-BARTH G 1968 Revision of the African Bithyniidae (Gastropoda Prosobranchia). Revue de Zoologie et de Botanique Africaines 78 (1–2): 129–160.
VAN MOL JJ 1970 Révision des Urocyclidae (Mollusca, Gastropoda, Pulmonata): anatomie, systèmatique, zoogèographie. Première partie. Annales Musée Royal de l’Afrique Centrale, Tervuren, Belgique. Series in–8º, Zoologie 180: 1–234.
REYNOLDS JE 2004 In conversation with Bernard Verdcourt. Mollusc World 4: 16–17; 21.
RODGERS WA & HOMEWOOD KM 1982 Species richness and endemism in the Usambara Mountain forests, Tanzania. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 18: 197–242.
SCHILEYKO AA 1999 Treatise on Recent Terrestrial Pulmonate Molluscs. Part 4: Draparnaudiidae, Caryodidae, Macrocyclidae, Acavidae, Clavatoridae, Dorcasiidae, Sculptariidae, Corillidae, Plectopylidae, Megalobulimidae, Strophocheilidae, Cerionidae, Achatinidae, Subulinidae, Glessulidae, Micractaeonidae, Ferrussaciidae. Ruthenica Supplement 2, Moscow, Russia.