Prof. Peter Nye FRS

Peter Nye, 1921 – 2009

Peter Hague Nye FRS, Reader in Soil Science and Emeritus Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford, died on 13 February 2009, aged 87. Peter Nye was one of the foremost figures in plant and soil sciences internationally for 40 years. He read chemistry at Oxford (Balliol College, Domus Exhibitioner) and took a postgraduate course organised by the Colonial Agricultural Service at Cambridge (Christ’s College) and elsewhere. He then spent 13 years in West Africa, initially as the Agricultural Chemist for the Gold Coast, then as Lecturer in Soil Science at University College of Ibadan, Nigeria, and Senior Lecturer in Soil Science at the University of Ghana. The work he did there led to, amongst other publications, his seminal book with DJ Greenland ‘The Soil Under Shifting Cultivation’ (CABI, 1961), an outstanding example of what can be achieved with minimal research resources cleverly deployed. It is still widely cited.

He returned to Oxford in 1961, via a year at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, succeeding RK Schofield as Reader in Soil Science. He continued studies begun by Schofield on solute diffusion in soil, and established a theory of diffusion in soils which became the foundation for his work on the mechanisms of solute uptake by plant roots. This culminated in his book with PB Tinker ‘Solute Movement in the Soil-Root System’ (Blackwell, 1977, with second edition, OUP, 2000). This is still one of the most influential books across the whole of plant and soil sciences.

Nye’s approach to research was no-nonsense. His lab contained no fancy instruments. He aimed to base everything as far as possible on first principles, and he had a strong conviction that it should always be possible to understand a problem or process well enough to develop predictive, mathematical models of it. These were then tested to destruction with simple experiments with all model input parameters derived independently. He was a follower of Karl Popper and a firm believer in Occam’s razor. Nye was Visiting Professor at the University of North Carolina at Raleigh (1958), Visiting Professor at Cornell University (1974, 1981, Messenger Lectures 1989), Commonwealth Visiting Professor at the University of Western Australia (1979), Visiting Professor at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University Copenhagen (1990) and Honorary Research Professor at the Scottish Crops Research Institute (1995–2000). He was President of the British Society of Soil Science (1968–69), a Member of the Council of the International Society of Soil Science (1968– 74) and a Governor of the National Vegetable Research Station (1972–87). He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1987.

Nye was a keen sportsman. He gained half blues for squash and tennis at Oxford, and played cricket for the national teams of Nigeria and Ghana. He also did a lot of sailing, cycling and walking. He was a gentleman of the old school. He was tirelessly kind and polite with students and junior colleagues. He never put himself forward, and everything he said was worth hearing. His writing is a marvel of clarity and elegance. He leaves a huge legacy for the plant and soil sciences. He was a giant. He suffered from poor health in his later years but bore this with great courage and no complaint. He was married to Phyllis Mary Nye (née Quenault) for 55 years and had three children and six grandchildren.


Writen by Guy Kirk and published in the December 2009 Edition of The Auger - the Membership he newsletter of The British Society of Soil Science 

Also published in the IUSS bulletin