William Crawford Williamson, an English naturalist and a founder of modern paleobotany, was born on November 24, 1816 in Scarborough, England. His father, John Williamson, was a well-known local naturalist, who, in conjunction with William Bean, first explored the rich fossiliferous beds of the Yorkshire coast. He was also the curator of the Scarborough natural history museum, and the younger Williamson was thus from the first brought up among scientific surroundings and in association with scientific people. William Smith, the "father of English geology," lived with the Williamsons for two years. Williamson's maternal grandfather was a lapidary, and from him he learnt the art of cutting stones, an accomplishment which he found of great use in later years as a paleontologist.
Apprenticed to an apothecary in 1832, Williamson, during his spare time, studied natural history and wrote several outstanding papers on fossils. In 1835 he was appointed curator of the museum of the Manchester Natural History Society. He left the museum to complete his medical training at University College, London, and then returned to Manchester, where he established his practice. When Owens College at Manchester was founded in 1851 he was at first the only professor of natural history, teaching geology, zoology and botany. Later, as additional professors were appointed he retained the chair of botany retiring in 1892. Williamson died on June 23, 1895 in London.
Williamson was a successful and popular scientific lecturer. His scientific work had a wide scope. Early in his career he worked on the zones of distribution of Mesozoic fossils (begun in 1834). In 1845 Williamson initiated the study of deep-sea deposits when he wrote a paper on the microscopic organisms found in the mud of the eastern Mediterranean region. Between 1840 and 1850 he introduced a new technique for the study of marine protozoans (Foraminifera) and demonstrated plantlike characteristics of Volvox, which is a colonial protozoan. In zoology he investigated the development of the teeth and bones of fishes (1842-1851), and on recent Foraminifera, a group on which he wrote a monograph for the Ray Society in 1858. In botany, in addition to a remarkable memoir on the minute structure of Volvox (1852), his work on the structure of fossil plants established British palaeobotany on a scientific basis.
As a founder of paleobotany, Williamson demonstrated that certain fossils containing secondary wood (then considered a characteristic of the phanerogams, or seed plants and flowering plants) were really cryptogams (or lower plants without seeds or flowers, such as algae, ferns, and mosses). Williamson published this controversial material in the first of 19 memoirs gathered under the title On the Organization of the Fossil Plants of the Coal Measures (1872–94).
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