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Sir John Harrison Burnett


1922 - 2007

Energetic mycologist, university administrator and conservationist. Born in Paisley, the son of the Minister of the Abbey, and educated in Bath and Merton College, Oxford, Burnett's studies were interrupted by World War II. During the War he is said to have influenced Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia which led to the creation of a system of National Parks in that country. Burnett began his career as a botany lecturer in Oxford in 1949. He spent a year in Liverpool before gaining the Chair in Botany in St Andrews (1955-60), then in Newcastle (1960-68), the Regius Chair in Glasgow (1968-70), was appointed the Sibthorpian Professor of Rural Economy at Oxford (1970-79) and finally Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh (1979-87). He also served as Chairman of the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute (1959-74).

His principal interest was fungi and his textbook Fundamentals of Mycology (1968) remains a key reference on the subject.

A passionate promoter of academic excellence and critic of the Conservative government in relation to their lack of funding for higher education, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher referred to him as her "favourite dissident scientist". He was knighted in 1987.

In 'retirement' he was Chair of the Nature Conservancy Council (1987-89) and played a key role in the creation of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) to provide a link between the newly created agencies Scottish Natural Heritage, English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales. He became Secretary to the World Council for the Biosphere (1987-93) and Chairman of the Coordinating Commission for Biological Recording in 1989, which drew him into the UK response to the Rio Convention on Biodiversity and the creation of the National Biodiversity Network, which became an internationally-respected model under Burnett's Chairmanship (2000-05).

Burnett died in Oxford.


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