Kenneth Page Oakley

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Kenneth Page Oakley died peacefully on 2 November 1981 in his seventy-first year.

The son of T.P. Oakley, one time Headmaster of Amersham Grammar School, Kenneth was educated at University College School, London, and University College London. He graduated in geology and presented his Ph.D. Thesis on Silurian Pearl Bearing Bryozoa (Polyzoa) to the University of London in 1938. His first published paper was on phosphatic calcite in Silurian Polyzoa. Then came papers on corals, sponges and bryozoa as well as the Regional Guide to the Central England District in the important British Regional Geology Series.

His interests, however, were not limited to palaeontology nor even geology but extended to a profound consideration of man’s cultural development and the more esoteric problem of how his remains could be dated in geological terms. Thus, although his first appointment had been with the Geological Survey he transferred to the British Museum (Natural History) in 1935. After war-time service back with the Geological Survey, where he spent many a night on fire duty patrolling the building, he returned to the British Museum (Natural History); exploited his war-time knowledge of the distribution of phosphates in nature; and tackled the problem of dating human fossils. He examined the uptake of fluorine by buried bone and confirmed that the amount of fluorine in a fossil was related to the length of time that it had been buried. He realized that there were too many variables affecting the rate of uptake for the quantity of fluorine present in a fossil to be calibrated against an absolute time scale and called his method a relative dating technique (a concept, understood by geologists, that seemed to be beyond the comprehension of many archaeologists).

One of the first applications of relative dating was on the collection of bones and teeth from Piltdown, Sussex — a collection that had been acquired by the Museum in 1912 by Sir Arthur Smith Woodward. Helped by the anatomical skills of J.S. Weiner from Oxford, Oakley showed that the hominoid fragments were modern human and ape conjoined in a monster and fraudulently associated with a cleverly composed assemblage of Pleistocene mammals (with Hoskins (1950) New Evidence on the Antiquity of Piltdown Man, Nature 165: 379; with Weiner (1955) Piltdown Man, Am. Sci. 43: 573-583).

The courage with which this relevation was handled and the world-wide attention which it brought helped to establish anthropology as a subject in the Museum, and the Sub-Department of Anthropology was created in 1959, with Kenneth Oakley at the head. While continuing to write on Pleistocene geology (‘The succession of Life through geological Time’ had been published as a Museum handbook in 1948 and had run to six editions by 1964; ‘Geology’ in Women’s Employment in 1945; papers on the origins of flint, thunderbolts and the role of Museums followed) Oakley increasingly turned his attention to the study of human development. ‘Man the Toolmaker’ which ran to six editions was first published as another Museum handbook in 1949: a best-seller, with many seminal ideas, supporting the displays in the Central Hall for which he had been largely responsible.

Who knows how anthropology would stand today in Britain had Oakley realized his ambition for a separate Department of Anthropology in the Museum to encompass the full gamut of human evolution and achievement? However, he did manage to broaden the scope of the anthropology section bringing in new staff with interests in human variability and palaeoserology. He established important collections of casts and artifacts, and greatly expanded the existing collections of comparative material, so that today the Museum can boast one of the most important collections of human skeletal material in the world. In addition there is an original painting by Congo, the London Zoo chimpanzee who painted for Desmond Morris; a magnificent pair of nineteenth century flint-lock pistols with flints made at Brandon; bone skates from the Thames and the better part of his library and reprint collection.

Above all, though, it is for his relationship with people that Kenneth Oakley is remembered; his Christmas parties that everyone came to; his generosity of ideas; his support for colleagues and respect for their opinions. Like so many from UCL he didn’t stand on ceremony or indulge in pomposity, but had a quiet dignity that never left him even as he was increasingly incapacitated by the progression of the multiple sclerosis which had caused his early retirement from the Museum in 1969.

In his retirement he indulged his interests in the folklore of fossils as well as maintaining contact with his former colleagues. His many publications will bear witness to his contribution to the evolution of the better side of human nature — he wrote on art, folklore, fire but never on weapons, warfare or disease. As one realises the gap his going will leave it is perhaps surprising that he never wrote on the role of death in human society.

Theya Molleson

(The Times published an obituary on 5 November.)

This obituary first appeared as: Molleson, Theya. 1982. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 48, p. 15 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

MOLLESON, THEYA. 1982. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 48, p. 15 (available on-line:


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