In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section John L. Harper

  • Introduction
  • Academic Development

Ecology John L. Harper
Roy Turkington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0135


Professor John Lander Harper CBE, FRS (b. May 27, 1925–d. March 22, 2009) revolutionized plant ecology and had perhaps a greater impact on its development as a modern science than any other ecologist in the 20th century. Raised on a farm in Rugby, England, Harper did his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Oxford. He then spent nine years as a lecturer at the Department of Agriculture, and, in 1960, he was appointed head of agricultural botany at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. He served as president of the British Ecological Society in 1966–1967 and of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology from 1993 to 1995; he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1978. He taught us an entirely new discipline and an entirely new way to study plants by changing the way we think about vegetation; instead of being relatively static, vegetation was viewed as a dynamic system of plant populations, in a state of continuous flux, based on birth and deaths of individuals. Almost single-handedly he pioneered the establishment of the field of plant population ecology. By bringing population biology and experimental approaches to the forefront of plant ecology, he linked demography and selection and, therefore, ecology and evolution. Harper’s ideas are now so central to plant ecology that they have become basic to our way of thinking. He began to ask questions about plant populations that zoologists had been asking about animal populations since at least the 1930s. Although faced with the dual difficulties of plant plasticity and of how to define “an individual plant,” Harper not only found ways of answering these questions, but also he presented the answers in a way that convinced us that plants were worthy of study; furthermore, plant populations were often easier to study than animal populations because they “stand still and wait to be counted” (Harper 1977, p. 515, cited under Population Biology of Plants). The repertoire of Harperian ecology included seed production, seed banks, seed dispersal, seed dormancy, seed-soil interactions, seedling recruitment, effects of neighbors, interference, population regulation, plant-animal interactions, dynamics of plant populations, demography, population evolution, resource allocation, and plant life histories. His upbringing on a farm and agricultural background are clearly reflected in the subjects used in much of his research—crop plants, grasses, and weeds—and the pasture at Henfaes, North Wales, served as the study site for at least ten graduate students and overseas visitors. In 1977 Harper published his monumental Population Biology of Plants.


A detailed profile of Harper’s life until 1985 is provided in Sagar 1985 and in obituaries in Franco, et al. 2009; Turkington 2009; and Cavers 2009). John Lander Harper was born on May 27, 1925, into a farming family. He was educated at Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby, where, under the enthusiastic leadership of Wilfred Kings, he developed a deep enthusiasm for natural history. At the age of thirteen, Harper observed and counted buttercups along a transect across an undulating pasture on his father’s farm (Harper 1989). He noted that different species of buttercups grew in different parts of the pasture (personal communication). In 1943 he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, and graduated with a first class honors in botany in 1946, followed by a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy in 1950, completed under the supervision of Dr. J. L. Harley. Harper was then appointed as a demonstrator at Oxford University in 1951 and personally acknowledges that G. E. Blackman was “exceptionally supportive in helping me to acquire my own group of D. Phil. students; G. R. Sagar and I. H. McNaughton came to me from the Oxford Botany Department and John Clatworthy came from Rhodesia as a Rhodes Scholar” (J. L. Harper, unpublished memoirs; provided by Claire, his daughter). From 1953 to 1959 he was lecturer in the Department of Agriculture and, after a sabbatical (1959–1960) as a Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the University of California, Davis, he was appointed head of agricultural botany at the University College of North Wales (UCNW), Bangor. In 1967 the Departments of Botany and Agricultural Botany merged and Harper became head of the new School of Plant Biology. He retained that position until 1982. At this time he was also president of the British Ecological Society (BES) (1966–1967). The School of Plant Biology at Bangor became the mecca for plant population biologists. It became identified with almost everything new emerging in the field of plant population ecology, attracting graduate students and visitors from all over the world. In 1982 Harper became emeritus professor at UCNW, but he continued as head of “The Unit”—the Unit of Population Biology, School of Plant Biology, UCNW. John Harper served as president of the European Society for Evolutionary Biology from 1993 to 1995, and he served as a visiting professor at the University of Exeter in 1998.

  • Cavers, Paul. 2009. Professor John L. Harper: The Canadian connections. Canadian Botanical Association Bulletin 42:84–85.

    This article catalogues John Harper’s Canadian connections with graduate students, postdocs, visiting scientists, and numerous undergraduate exchange students. The article also documents a few amusing and/or challenging incidences from this cross-Atlantic connection.

  • Franco, Miguel, José Sarukhán, and Rodolfo Dirzo. 2009. A Darwinian plant ecologist, John Lander Harper CBE FRS, 1925–2009. In Memories of John L. Harper: A remembrance by his friends, students, and colleagues. 2d ed. Edited by Glenn R. Matlack, 98–100. Bangor, UK: JPB.

    This online resource written by three of Harper’s graduate students provides an overview of Harper’s academic career and influence, and how this influence has spread into successive generations of Mexican students, contributing to the study and conservation of Mexico’s biodiversity.

  • Harper, John L. 1989. Plant demography: A citation classic commentary on Population Biology of Plants by John L. Harper. Current Contents/Agriculture, Biology and Environmental Sciences 5:14.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2009.01528.x

    In this one-page article, Harper outlines why the time was ripe for his writing of Plant Population Biology; he notes that “plant ecology was in the doldrums; it was rarely experimental and could not link easily with evolutionary theory” (p. 14). At the time of writing this article, the book had been cited in more than 1,660 publications.

  • Sagar, Geoff R. 1985. Profile of John L. Harper. In Studies of plant demography: A festschrift for John L. Harper. Edited by James White, xix–xxv. London: Academic Press.

    This profile was written by one of Harper’s early graduate students and long-time friend and colleague. Thus it provides extra details of Harper’s early enthusiasm for natural history, his early academic achievements, and the history of the development of the School of Plant Biology in North Wales.

  • Turkington, Roy. 2009. Obituary: Professor John L. Harper, FRS CBE, 1925–2009. Journal of Ecology 97:835–837.

    DOI: 10.1890/0012-9623-91.1.9

    This tribute to John Harper was written by a former graduate student and provides a description of Harper’s personality, the development of his research approach, his family life, responses of those around him in Bangor, and a number of direct “Harperian” quotations. Reprinted in Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 91 (2010): 9–13.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.