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Patterson, Colin (1933–1998), vertebrate palaeontologist, was born on 13 October 1933 at Hammersmith, London, the only child of Maurice William Patterson (1908–1991), bank manager, and Norah Joan (née Elliott) (1907–1984), secretary. He spent his childhood in Sheen but his early London education was disrupted by wartime evacuation to attend Hill Place boarding-school, Stow on the Wold, in 1942. He returned to London in 1947 and entered Tonbridge School, Kent. He left in 1952 for national service in the Royal Engineers. At Imperial College, London (1954–7), he gained first-class honours in zoology and was awarded the Forbes medal. His undergraduate notebooks demonstrate the clarity of expression, attention to detail, and competence in scientific drawing which typify all his later work.

In 1951 Patterson met Rachel Caridwen Richards (b. 1932), artist and elder daughter of and Frances Clayton (1901–1985), both of whom were well-known artists. They married on 9 April 1955 and had two daughters, Sarah (b. 1959) and Jane (b. 1963). Patterson was appointed assistant lecturer in biology at Guy's Hospital medical school in 1957, and at the same time began work on his PhD research under the supervision of K. A. Kermack at University College, London. His research concerned the anatomy and evolution of fossil acanthopterygians (spiny-rayed fishes related to modern-day perch, plaice, and mackerel) found in the English Chalk, a deposit laid down in seas about 95 million years ago. These fishes had previously been studied by A. S. Woodward in the late nineteenth century, but new techniques using acetic acid had recently been developed to dissolve the enclosing rock, leaving a fossil skeleton that could be studied in as minute detail as its modern counterpart. Patterson therefore became equally expert in the comparative anatomy of the skeleton of modern as well as fossil fishes. He gained his PhD from London University in 1961.

In July 1962 Patterson was appointed senior scientific officer in the department of palaeontology at the Natural History Museum (then called British Museum (Natural History)—a name that he continued to use until his official retirement in October 1993), where he became successor to E. I. White as researcher, and responsible for the national collection of fossil fishes. Throughout his life he continued to describe the anatomy of fossil fishes comparing them to their modern relatives. In 1975 he published ‘A review of Mesozoic acanthopterygian fishes, with special reference to those of the English Chalk’, a lengthy paper concerning the evolution of the braincase of actinopterygian fishes. This work, like his earlier thesis, was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and drew on his deep understanding of comparative anatomy; it has become the authoritative work to which other ichthyologists constantly refer.

In 1967 Patterson read the work of Willi Hennig, a German entomologist, who proposed a new method of biological systematics (the science of discovering genealogical relationships between organisms) later known as cladistics. To Patterson this was a revelation. He wrote many papers developing further the theory and methodology, and through his lucid prose and lecturing style he was one of the most influential proponents making cladistics the current systematic paradigm. In ‘Morphological characters and homology’ (Problems of Phylogenetic Reconstruction, ed. K. A. Joysey, 1982) he gave an insightful history into the recognition of biological homology and offered a modern formulation in which he argued that homology is a theory derived from observation. For Patterson empirical study of specimens led to the formulation of theory.

Patterson always kept up to date in his research interests, and when molecular biology began to produce amino acid and nucleotide sequences he quickly integrated these into his systematic work and clarified the relationship between morphological and molecular homology, editing in 1987 Molecules and Morphology in Evolution: Conflict or Compromise?.

As an undergraduate Patterson had attended lectures on evolution given by the entomologist O. W. Richards FRS. This remained a lifelong interest. In 1978 he published an eloquent account—Evolution—and with his characteristic candour pointed out the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the theory. He delivered the typescript of the second edition three days before his death.

The merit of Patterson's researches was recognized in rapid promotion to principal scientific officer in 1969, and then through individual merit promotion to senior principal scientific officer in 1974. He was elected to the Royal Society of London in March 1993. Throughout his career he was awarded many honours and awards including foreign honorary memberships of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, and the Willi Hennig Society. He received the scientific medal of the Zoological Society of London (1972), the Romer/Simpson medal of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (1997) and, posthumously, the gold medal of the Linnean Society, which he had served as council member (1970–73, 1979–85), vice-president (1980–82), zoological editor (1978–81), and editorial secretary (1982–5).

Patterson was tall, imposing, and gentle, measured in speech with a remarkable memory and socially diverse circle of friends. Recollections of his character as well as his influence on colleagues were given in a special issue of The Linnean in 2000. For all but the first few years of his marriage Patterson lived in Barnes, London. He died on 9 March 1998 at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital after suffering a heart attack while bicycling to the Natural History Museum; he was cremated at Mortlake cemetery ten days later. He was survived by his wife.

Peter L. Forey


R. A. Fortey, Memoirs FRS, 45 (1999), 365–77 · P. L. Forey, B. G. Gardiner, and C. J. Humphries, eds., The Linnean [C. Patterson issue] (2000) · P. L. Forey, ‘In Darwin's footsteps’, The Guardian (26 March 1998) · personal knowledge (2004) · B. Gardiner, ‘Colin Patterson’, The Independent (24 March 1998), 22 a–b · private information (2004) [widow] · The Times (8 April 1998), 19 · d. cert.


photograph, repro. in The Guardian · photograph, repro. in The Times · photograph, repro. in The Independent

Wealth at death  

£36,930—gross; £34,835—net: probate, 7 Oct 1998, CGPLA Eng. & Wales