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Collection Level Description: Correspondence and papers of John Laker Harley

Reference: MSS. Eng. c. 4753-4777, d. 2562-2563, e. 2826-2830
Title: Correspondence and papers of John Laker Harley
Dates of Creation: 1930-1991
Extent: 32 boxes
Language of Material: English

Administrative/Biographical History

John Laker Harley, christened John but always known as Jack, was born in 1911 at Charlton, Kent. After early preparatory schooling at Shirley House, Charlton, he attended Leeds Grammar School from 1923 when his family moved there. In 1930 he won an Open Exhibition to Wadham College, Oxford, where he read Botany under Professor A.G. Tansley and tutors such as A.R. Clapham and W.O. James; some of his undergraduate field study work was of sufficiently high quality to merit inclusion in Tansley's classic work The British Islands and their Vegetation. The award of a Christopher Welch Scholarship in 1933 enabled Harley to embark on postgraduate study of beech mycorrhiza, which became, with a few interludes, the principal topic of his research career.

In 1939 he was appointed a Departmental Demonstrator, but from October 1940 served in the Royal Signals, being part of the Army Operational Research Group from 1943 and working in India and Burma. He was demobilised with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in September 1945, and returned to Oxford. His long connection with The Queen's College began in 1946, first as Browne Research Fellow, then as Tutorial Fellow from 1951 until his move to Sheffield in 1965.

From 1948 began the most productive period of Harley's research career, working with a succession of able research students on careful studies of factors governing nutrient absorption and uptake in mycorrhizal roots of beech. The work, and the resulting steady stream of publications, was recognised by his election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1964. In 1965, feeling under some pressure from university and college administrative committees and hoping to be freer to pursue active research, he accepted an invitation from his old friend and former tutor A.R. Clapham to take up the second Chair of Botany at Sheffield. In practice, Harley found a considerable administrative and departmental burden fell on him there also, including the complete redesigning and reorganising of the laboratories, and he was conscious of a further slowing-down of his research activity.

Meanwhile, his very major part in the drafting of the 'Florey Report' advocating greater cooperation at Oxford between the Departments of Botany, Agriculture and Forestry had had some effect, and in 1969 he was asked to return to Oxford and take the Chair of Forest Science - a new designation indicating an intended change of emphasis. The full reorganisation and amalgamation which had been envisaged did not prove possible at that time, but Harley's ten-year tenure of the Chair was highly productive: in his own research, in the development of the Department and its 'Units', and in his many commitments to the University, to learned societies and to UK and overseas science. Many of these continued after his official retirement in 1979, together with visits and lecture tours abroad.

Harley's personal qualities, which emerge from every aspect of the collection, include directness, pragmatism, thoughtfulness and commonsense. He was a calming influence in several more easily disturbed communities, and his balanced opinion carried weight. He ran his Department on an easy rein and made lasting friendships at every stage of his career, as can be seen from the tone of the correspondence. In 1938 he married Lindsay Fitt, a fellow-student in the Botany Department and a graduate of St. Hilda's College; they had a daughter Sarah (Sally) (born May 1941) and a son Richard (born October 1943). Lindsay shared his interests and his travels, and there are innumerable references throughout the collection to her supportive presence. It is a measure of the family's affectionate cohesion that both his wife and his daughter were his collaborators, in, respectively, Check list of mycorrhiza in the British flora, (1987, 1990), and Mycorrhizal Symbiosis, (1983).

Scope and Content





Lectures, papers, addresses

Visits, conferences, symposia

Societies and organisations


Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were received from Mrs. E.L. Harley, widow, on several occasions, 1992-1993.

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Finding Aids

A fuller description and detailed index are available in the Library and at The National Archives.

Access Points



Harley | John Laker | 1911-1990 | botanist

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