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Neill Alexander

Emeritus Professor R McNeill Alexander, CBE FRS

His colleague Dr John Lydon has contributed the following obit of Emeritus Professor Robert McNeill (Neill) Alexander, who died on 21 March 2016.



If Arthur Conan Doyle had written a sequel to The Lost World, he would have invented Neill Alexander for the return expedition (and Neill actually was a member of a Cambridge expedition to the Guyanan jungle). He was the sort of person that Victorian readers would have expected to find as professor of a university zoology department – impressive and charismatic – and of course he was famous for his work on dinosaurs. He was a prolific author – writing nearly 30 books and more than 250 scientific papers. His early work had a crucial role in establishing the developing field of biomechanics, introducing concepts and methods of analysis which became widely used.

In his youth Neill had a pronounced stammer, but he overcame this to become an accomplished lecturer and, like Churchill, the remaining traces of his impediment seemed to add power to his message. He was an enthusiastic science communicator and adviser to numerous television programmes about prehistoric animal life – including the BBC’s six-part Walking with Beasts series (2001). One of his television appearances shows him standing precariously in the back of an open Land Rover, filming antelopes galloping at top speed across the African velt. As always he looked the part – a zoological version of Indiana Jones. However, in the university environment, with his impressive beard, stature and wise manner, he was, in retrospect, Gandalf, a decade before The Lord of the Rings films reached the cinema.

Professor Alexander was an undergraduate and postgraduate at the University of Cambridge (MA, PhD) and subsequently obtained a DSc from the University of Wales. After a Lectureship at the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University), he became Professor of Zoology in 1969 at Leeds and remained there until his retirement in 1999. He was Head of the Department of Zoology (1969-78) and Head of the Department of Pure and Applied Biology (1983-87). As Emeritus Professor he continued to work most days at the University until severe illness a year ago prevented him. 

His early work in the 1960s and 1970s covered such topics as A mechanical analysis of a hind leg of a frog and The mechanics of jumping by a dog. His treatment of physiology in engineering terms was unlike anything that had gone before – and it stimulated the development of the new field of biomechanics. His books on Principles of Animal Locomotion, Functional Design in Fishes and Bones: The Unity of Form and Function, became classics. He reduced the complex processes of walking, running, swimming and flying to the simplest mechanical level. In particular, he clarified the parameters which determine the gait which land animals use, and the factors which cause it to change, for example from walking to running or from trotting to galloping.

But it was his work on dinosaurs that caught the imagination and made him famous. Neill used to pretend to be irritated by the fact that he was best known for his dinosaur work. “Only five of my thirty books have been about dinosaurs” he would protest with a smile.  It started in 1976, with what was to become a landmark paper in Nature, entitled “Estimates of speeds in dinosaurs”. In this he proposed a “dinosaur speed calculator”, a graph which he used to calculate the speeds of different dinosaur species. This used two parameters which could be measured from fossilized tracks of dinosaur footprints – the stride length and the leg length (calculated from the size of the footprint).  The values he obtained were very moderate. For the lumbering four-legged dinosaurs they were comparable to the walking speeds of humans (about 4 mph), and for the faster dinosaurs which ran on two legs, only about twice this value. Subsequent reappraisal of the data by Neill himself and others led to rather higher estimates. There were suggestions that some large carnivores, such as T. rex, may have been capable of considerably higher speeds. He argued, however, that its bone dimensions set an upper limit and it would not have been able to cope with speeds much greater than 20 mph.

In addition to his work on dinosaurs, much of Neill’s later research focused on the role of tendon elasticity in the mechanics of running and jumping. This concerned the way in which some of the energy of the impact as the foot hit the ground could be stored and used to assist the take-off of the next stride – like a spring being compressed and then extending when the pressure was reduced.  He made the remarkable discovery that made physiologists look at the complex architecture of the foot in a new light. It appeared that most running shoes return less than 70 per cent of the energy they absorb in each stride. This is to be compared with an impressive 93% for the naked foot. Sportswear companies trying to develop improved performance running shoes took his work very seriously.

The first time I saw Neill was memorable. It was at a University open day at Leeds in the late 1960s.  The Department of Zoology had laid out a fine array of displays and the room was filled with groups of visitors chattering noisily to members of staff and research students. Suddenly it went quiet. All eyes turned to the doorway. There stood a tall impressive figure, with a beard that would have graced an Old Testament patriarch. A six-foot python was wrapped around his chest. Its lively head scanned the room like a daemon in one of Philip Pullman’s Lyra books. I hoped that it had been fed recently.

His lectures were popular with students – to the extent that a Leeds University alumni poll listed him as one of the favourite professors, “with enthusiasm and love for his subject”. No one ever forgot his impressive demonstrations of biomechanics when he stood on the lecture bench with his knuckles rubbing across the woodwork, to demonstrate how chimpanzees walk.

He had wide-ranging interests and greatly enjoyed writing about them. His first publication, in 1951, when he was in his mid-teens, was a note in British Birds magazine on observations of nesting robins (the family of robins concerned were nesting in his bedroom). Amongst his more unorthodox publications was "The Evolution of the Basilisk" amock serious text, published in the Greece & Rome magazine, about the mythical half cockerel half serpent chimera. It was written as light relief when he was working on his (completely unrelated) PhD.  The text was complete with lengthy tracts of Latin (and some Greek) and an impressive array of classical sources were referenced. Like the Gorgon, the basilisk was able to kill with a glance. Based on this, Neill convincingly identified the source of the legend as the Egyptian cobra – a snake capable of spitting its venom eight feet and aiming it at a man’s face. Since the venom was lethal if it entered the victim’s eyes it is easy to see how the confusion with the Gorgon could have arisen. 

Neill had a well-developed sense of fun. In 1996 the Mail on Sunday published an illustrated article on Britain's Nuttiest Professors – Raving Brainiacs. Neill Alexander was number one. He clearly enjoyed the good-natured notoriety.  At one time, the University used to hold an annual competition for the ‘Golden Pillow Award’.  Competitors were given five minutes to show how boring they could be. Only the most confident lecturers entered with clever parodies of bad lectures. One year Neill appeared with a talk about the evolution of the back teeth of the horse. Slide after slide of fossil equine molars appeared with scarcely perceptible differences – and the final comment, delivered perfectly deadpan, was - “and all this during a mere two million years”.

On another occasion I had to invite him to give a public lecture at the University on some topic suitable for an audience of sixth formers. I tried to gently imply that perhaps a title a little more catchy than, for example ‘An overview of the development of the swim bladder in Jurassic plesiosaurs’ might be appropriate. His reply came back; “Sex and Violence in the World of Dinosaurs”. There was a perceptible degree of eyebrow raising at this by the appropriate committee – but it was eventually approved and I went ahead with the advertising. He brought along two sets of antlers and after I had introduced him to a packed lecture theatre, we spent some time literally locking horns and prancing around looking foolish, before he held the attention of an enraptured audience for an hour with a carefully considered lecture on (amongst other things) how useless the overblown pseudo-armour of the triceratops would be against a real predator and how its function could only have been to attract a mate.

As his fame spread, his expertise was in demand from some unlikely quarters.  In 1970 he was co-opted for three days temporary service in the US Navy to discussing the so-called “deep scattering layer.” He rapidly became very much an establishment figure – Secretary of the Zoological Society of London (1992-1999) which included supervising the management of London and Whipsnade Zoos, President of the Society for Experimental Biology (1995-1997), President of the International Society of Vertebrate Morphologists (1997-2001) and editor of Proceedings of the Royal Society B (1998-2004). He continued dealing with a heavy load of reviewing and editing long after his formal retirement.

His secret was that he always treated his work with playful enthusiasm – and his fun with great seriousness. He was universally regarded with respect and admiration. His was a well-lived life.

He is survived by his wife, son, and daughter.