Percy Butler
Percy, belated but no less sincere, greetings on your 100th birthday.
By Bernard Wood
November 26, 2012

The composer Elliot Carter died on November 6th. It would be dishonest to pretend that I listened much to his music, but I know musicians consider him an important composer. What caught my attention was his age, 103, and that he was actively composing until just before his death. An obituary used a powerful illustration to emphasize Carter’s longevity. It pointed out that if Franz Schubert had lived as long, and as actively, as Carter, he, Schubert, would have still have been composing in 1900. Carter came to mind because I was reminded recently by Christopher Dean that Percy Butler celebrated his 100th birthday this year, and he, Chris, sent me the accompanying photograph that shows Percy pointing out the finer points of a protocone on his tribosphenic molar-shaped birthday cake to a young relative.

It has been my privilege and good fortune to know Percy. When I started to be interested in hominin teeth in the 1970s, Percy was close to the UK retirement age, but he was still active and quietly influential. I had read his 1956 paper about the ontogeny of molar teeth and I had seen him at meetings, but I got to know him better when we were both working on fossils at the National Museum in Nairobi in the late 1970s (or maybe it was the early 1980s). I was studying the Koobi Fora hominins and he was studying Miocene insectivores. We were both staying at the Devon Hotel and because we were working in the same room at the museum we saw a lot of each other. Percy is modest, quietly spoken, and physically diminutive. One of the days we did not walk in together he arrived disheveled, his spectacle frames bent out of shape and with a substantial graze on his forehead. He explained that he had been “set upon”, but as he explained, all was OK “because they didn’t get any’fink” (Percy has a cockney accent and a slight lisp). After a cup of tea, I helped him fix his spectacles with some tape and then Percy settled down at the microscope to look at his insectivores.

To give you some idea of the arc of Percy’s career, he went up to Cambridge University in 1930 where he was taught by Parrington, and when he was awarded a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship in 1936 he spent two years at the AMNH working with W.K Gregory. As for his influence, if you have heard of the ‘field theory’ that was Percy (Butler, 1939). He recounts that, “while studying milk molar evolution in perissodactyls I hit upon the significance of wear facets, as providing a functional interpretation of molar cusp patterns” and he goes on to concede that, “since then tooth wear, and its relation to diet and chewing movements, has become a flourishing field of research.” Functional dental macrowear is largely Percy, too.

Percy’s contributions to paleontology were justly recognized in 1996 when he was awarded the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s Romer-Simpson Medal. In thanking the SVP at the meeting Percy said, “it was a surprise to hear that I was to be awarded the Romer-Simpson Medal, as I am only marginally a paleontologist. I have had no geological training and have found fossils only in museums.” With characteristic modesty, he went on to say, “with new discoveries and technical advances, much of my work is beginning to look old-fashioned and merely of historical interest.”

In fact, if you read Percy’s seminal papers, his work is timeless; his 1956 paper on molar ontogeny (Butler, 1956) is as relevant now as it was nearly half-a-century ago. And there is apparently more to come, for in an email to Chris Dean, Jerry Hooker explained that Percy, “is currently working on a paper on Bathonian eutriconodontans with Denise Sigogneau-Russell.” Now that’s what I call durability.

References and Acknowledgements

Butler, P.M. (1939) ‘Studies of the mammalian dentition. Differentiation of the post-canine dentition.’ Proc. Zool. Soc. Lond., 109B: 103-132.

Butler, P.M. (1956) ‘The ontogeny of molar pattern.’’ Biol. Revs., 31: 30-70.


Special thanks to Christopher Dean, Jerry Hooker and Cathy Forster.