James Francis Monk (1915–2014)

Published on 01 December 2014 in Obituaries

James Monk, with his wife Diana, in April 2011; photo by Jeremy Greenwood

James Monk, with his wife Diana, in April 2011; photo by Jeremy Greenwood

James Monk may have been little known to many BB readers but, despite his life as a busy medical doctor, for many years he played a significant role in the development of scientific ornithology in Britain, mainly through his involvement with the British Ornithologists’ Union. With an easy manner he was calm and unflappable, hard-working and highly competent.

James was born in 1915 in Delhi, the son of a missionary teacher. He was educated at Winchester College, followed by Trinity College, Oxford, where he read medicine (or physiology as it was then, a subject which he regarded as ‘quite useless’). In the midst of his course, he was called up in 1942, and spent four years in the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving in Tunisia, Sicily and through Italy. Research on malaria in servicemen earned him a DM from Oxford, and led to publications in the British Medical Journal and elsewhere. He entered full-time General Practice in 1947 at Goring-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Ornithology was his hobby. At school, Dick Cornwallis was the only other pupil who shared his interest; they became great friends and went birdwatching together. In Oxford, W. B. Alexander (WBA) taught James how to count and ring birds and H. N. Southern taught him bird songs. He was friendly with a fellow bird-minded student, Hugh Elliott, and joined both the BTO and the Oxford Ornithological Society, of which he became Secretary. During the war, in Tunisia, James found himself with so few patients that he could spend most of his time birdwatching. This was well before the halcyon days of field guides, but in answer to a plea for help, WBA sent him a copy of Whittaker’s two-volume Birds of Tunisia, together with an apologetic request for reimbursement of the cost, a princely five guineas. James later presented these volumes to the Alexander Library in Oxford (with an inscription on their history).

James’s wartime postings led to a particular interest in bird migration, which was followed, back home, by a close friendship with Reg Moreau, then editor of the Ibis, the journal of the BOU. James authored or co-authored several papers on bird migration in various parts of southern Europe and North Africa. He was the first to analyse Nest Record Cards from the BTO, leading to a paper on the breeding of Greenfinches Chloris chloris, which had the distinction of being the first paper in the new journal, Bird Study, in 1954 (1: 2-14). James developed a fascination with Wrynecks Jynx torquilla, which still bred in the Goring area into the 1950s. Under the auspices of the BTO, he organised a national survey, which led to two further papers in Bird Study, the last describing the past and current status of the Wryneck in Britain (Bird Study 10: 112-132).

Over a period of 32 years James held every office in the BOU except Treasurer, serving as Assistant Editor (1956-60), then Editor of the Ibis (1960-66), Honorary Secretary (1967-72), Vice-President (1978-82), and finally President (1983-87). He took over from Reg Moreau as editor of the Ibis at a time when ornithological research was expanding rapidly and, like his predecessor, had the enviable ability to turn dull and turgid scientific writing into interesting, succinct and readable text. During a period when James had about 3,000 patients on his list, his Ibis ‘hobby’ absorbed much of his spare time, and during his years as editor, his young daughter pinned a notice on his study door which read: ‘Ibis going on in here. Please knock before going in. Thank-you.’ When Reg Moreau died in 1970, James undertook to finish and see through publication Moreau’s classic book on The Palearctic-African Bird Migration Systems (1972). In 1975, under his initiative but following a suggestion from Bill Bourne, the BOU started a checklist series, which James edited for 13 years, and which at that time filled a vacant niche in the ornithological literature. James was also heavily involved with the British Ornithologists’ Club, acting as Chairman for four years (1968-71), and then editor of its Bulletin for 15 years (1976-90). No-one was more deserving of the BOU’s Union Medal, awarded in 1988 ‘in recognition of eminent services to ornithology’. James died peacefully on 8th May 2014, aged 98 years, and was survived by his wife Diana, four children, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Ian Newton

Compiled with help from recordings made by Jeremy Greenwood of an interview with James Monk in 2011, to be placed in the BTO archives.