The Teaching Excellence Academy support the Student/Staff Partnership Scheme at the University and its yearly activity and array of fabulous projects. This series of blogs stem from a 2023 Student/Staff Partnership (SSP) project led by Louis Chambers and Bryony Caswell, respectively student and lecturer in Geology. Their project aimed to highlight role models, historical and recent, and resources in geology to empower and inspire today’s students.
Enjoy reading the whole series: Part 1 and Part 3. Any queries should be directed to SSP.
The intrepid Professor Neale 1926-2006
Following an early career in the Royal Navy at age 17 and after some years of service minesweeping off the Southern Ireland Coast, John Neale, then 23 years old, graduated from Manchester University with a first-class degree in Geology and Geography and an additional certificate in Biology. He joined the University of Hull in 1949 as an associate lecturer in petrology and mineralogy.
Whilst teaching in a newly fledged programme, Neale undertook and “self-supervised” his PhD restricted by public transport and the limits of how many miles he could cover by bicycle. He initially focused on mapping the geology around Market Weighton. Yet, after realising the exposure was far too poor, he opted to study the Speeton Clay at Reighton on the Yorkshire Coast and use tiny aquatic organisms called ostracods to date the local stratigraphy. Yet, due to his teaching responsibilities, there was very little time for independent research. Nonetheless, he achieved his PhD in 1961. He dabbled in macrofossils thanks to the research students he supervised in the 1960s - notably Pete Rawson.
John became a world-renowned specialist in ostracods and served as an instrumental figure in the International Research Group on Ostracoda. His research was on both extinct and extant species. He pioneered discoveries and theories, producing state-of-the-art illustrations and microscope analysis using Scanning Electron Microscopes to identify the taxonomy of these creatures; these were published in his Stereo-Atlas of Ostracoda Shells. The first was published in 1973; his use of Scanning Electron Microscopy to describe microfossils at that time was cutting-edge.
His international reputation grew in countries as far away as China, India, Pakistan, Japan and Thailand. He developed a close friendship and working relationship with Dr Patrap Singh, who collaboratively worked on the Cretaceous Ostracods of the Caucasus in Russia. Dr Singh respected Professor Neale enough to name a genus of Costa Ostracod after him.
John’s interest in travelling grew, and he spent much of his summers in the mid-1980s exploring the mountains and river valleys in the far east with his colleagues. He left many detailed records of his daily activities whilst travelling and always made sure to write about his breakfast:
“Wednesday 29th July 1987. - Nanjing
Breakfast of two fried eggs, toast and coffee on first floor of the Mani Building. Picked up in the Toyota with the electric windows again to go to the Institute.” Neale, China 1987, 26.1-3.
He was also sure to keep notes on how he was feeling, remembering to write down how he slept and how he was in the morning:
“Sunday 14th July 1985. - Nanjing
Slept very well but woke with headache and feeling rather fragile so spent a very quiet morning. Omelette and toast for breakfast.” Neale, Pakistan, India, China, Japan Thailand 1985, 31. 1-3
John Neale was regarded as a true gentleman and is remembered fondly by some current members of staff who recall his large stature and strong presence. One recalls that he would remind students and some staff to address him by his title, Professor Neale, not John. He remained at the university following the department's closure in the late 80s and after the last of his students graduated in 1991.
During his career, Professor Neale built a strong connection with the Natural History Museum of London. Prior to and following his death in the late 2000s, Neale’s Ostracod collection was reposited in the museum for further study.
Similar to today, in the mid-20th century, the Geology Department at Hull had many specialists. However, back then, there were more palaeontology and microfossil specialists. In 1963 Professor Neale formed a research group of PhD students who studied ammonites, trilobites, graptolites and Ostracods. One of our alums, Pete Rawson, completed his undergraduate degree in geology in 1963 and later his PhD in macrofossils, particularly ammonites, in 1967.
Besides being crustaceans that look like fleas in tacos, Ostracods are fascinating and essential within marine ecosystems. The ostracods first appeared around 540 million years ago in the Cambrian. Today’s species have lived roughly unchanged since the Ordovician Period (480 million years ago). We can use their shells' chemical composition and shape to inform us of prehistoric climate, ocean salinity, temperature, and pH of freshwater and seawater. We can even use Ostracods to tell us about prehistoric glacial retreats!
Dr Sue Hull, from the University of Hull, told me she admires ostracods as an evolutionary phenomenon. They have clonal generations, and due to aspects of their anatomy and reproductive cycles, they fall under the Red Queen Effect. Some Ostracods don’t have intercourse for 10s of millions of years; some are thought to have gone nearly 70 million years without sexually reproducing. This has led to the belief that they must be ‘general purpose’ species with little need to diversify their genome. But, enough of the core facts, it might surprise you that ostracods have the oldest penises on the planet; they evolved in the Ordovician/Silurian. And you might find it interesting that they can produce disproportionately large sperm. They are about 1 cm long! Someone once said that if an ostracod were the size of an elephant, its sperm would be the length of a football pitch!
As brilliant and curious as these creatures are, we sadly won’t see any on our upcoming trip to Cyprus (covered in the next instalment). Instead, we will be seeing another peculiar organism - Foraminifera.
Foraminifera, or just “forams”, have the same scientific and environmental value as ostracods. They are just as old, and they have very similar applications. We can use them as bioindicators for ecological and environmental health and stability. Their shells give us insights into ocean depth, pH, salinity and temperature. Isotopes of oxygen and carbon, along with trace metals like strontium, magnesium, lithium and barium, can tell us about how high or low ocean temperatures were; even the colour of their shells can give us an idea of ocean temperatures, the colour change is due to hydrocarbon build-up in the shells from the surrounding sediments resulting in their valves becoming darker over time. Foraminifera can also inform us of the health of coral reefs and ocean acidification since their shells are also made up of calcite which dissolves in acid. When these creatures die, if the oceans are shallow enough, they settle on the seafloor and can be preserved as chalk and different varieties of limestone.
In Cyprus, the field excursion described in our next instalment, my class will study forams to help understand the complex story of the island's uplift from the ocean floor to its emergence above the sea over a 90 million-year period. Before flying out, in our pre-trip briefings, we began to understand that from these microscopic creatures, it is possible to learn about the depths of the ancient “Neo-Tethys” Ocean, its temperature around the equatorial latitude, its pH, and the overall prehistoric environment of Cyprus.