Nigel Barnicot

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Nigel Barnicot died on May 14th, following an illness which lasted about two years. His courage in tolerating his deteriorating health reflected his great strength of mind generally.

Born in 1914, he graduated in zoology and physiology at University College London in 1936, becoming a member of staff in 1938. His first appointment was in zoology, but later he moved on to the new Department of Anthropology. His refreshing indifference to titles or the trappings of status was early reflected in the fact that he had to be urged to submit work for a Ph.D. degree and received it only in 1950. Ten years later he was to be given the merit title of Professor of Physical Anthropology, then the only position of its kind in Britain. Barnicot never claimed to like teaching, yet paradoxically, he could be stimulating as a teacher well beyond his own estimation of his capabilities; and at a research level his breadth of knowledge, and a penetrating scientific approach to divergent problems, ensured that contact with him was always rewarding. To the lazy student, he could be extremely formidable!

I knew Nigel Barnicot for some twenty years, and there is no doubt in my mind that he was one of the very few outstanding men in anthropology during the past half-century. Yet when it comes to undertaking any analysis of why he was exceptional, it is not easy to say precisely why. It is not just a matter of viewing the quality and variety of his published work. To understand Barnicot’s stature, one must attempt to consider his ‘total personality pattern’—to view the whole man. He was hard-working, quietly benign, and extremely perceptive. He could occasionally be an unusual mixture of dignity and emotion. His ability to reduce to size those showing arrogance or pomposity amounted to genius. He could attack on such occasions with a bristling coldness—usually tempered with wit—and professorial colleagues were by no means exempt. Yet he could be very gentle in offering criticism, as evidenced by an early publication of my own, which was reduced to shreds—but every comment was valuable and gave me better insight into the discipline of scientific writing. There is surely some significance in the fact that University College, during his time, produced more people concerned with the biological aspects of anthropology than any other university—certainly as regards Britain, and probably on a wider horizon. And the wide range of interests of those who researched under him is also a reflection of his own great breadth and wisdom.

His review in Nature (1972) of the work of Sir Grafton Elliot Smith is entitled ‘A Man of Many Interests’, a title which I think is even more applicable to Barnicot himself. Some rough chronological analysis of his work shows this well. His earliest work pertinent to anthropology began to be published in the 1940’s and was concerned with aspects of the biology of bone, in particular the influence of vitamin A on bone. He continued to write in this field up to 1972. Primate biology also long held his interest—beginning with work on baboon teeth in 1949 and moving onto genetic problems in the 1960’s for the rest of his life. The influence of Africanists in his Department drew him towards work on living human populations in W. Africa, and thus by 1950 and for about the next decade, he extended his range onto problems of taste sensitivity, structure of skin and hair (especially pigmentation) and to aspects of adaptive physiology. Where possible comparisons were made with other groups, and in fact he slowly moved over to other populations by 1960, concentrating more on variation in haemoglobins, haptaglobins and transferrins. Time was found at this period to produce additional papers on variation in foot structure and the biology of the Etruscans. It was the sum total of all this work which was to earn him the Rivers Memorial Medal of the RAI.

During the final ten years of his life his interest extended further into chromosome variation and human disease ecology, the latter particularly in relation to the Hadza of Tanzania. All this amounts to the most clear indication so far by one man of the great range of laboratory techniques and lines of investigation which can be used to study human populations.

Barnicot knew the difference between what men so often pretend to be and what they are. It is a privilege to have known him.

Don Brothwell

This obituary first appeared as: Brothwell, Don. 1975. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 9, p. 9 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

BROTHWELL, DON. 1975. ‘Obituary’. RAIN, No. 9, p. 9 (available on-line:


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