Watts, William Arthur ('Bill') (1930–2010), scientist and provost of TCD, was born on 26 May 1930 in Upper Mayor Street, in Dublin's East Wall area, his maternal grandparents' home. His mother, Bess Dickinson, had moved to Dublin from England as a child, and in 1925 married William Low Watts, of a presbyterian family originally from Co. Down, who had only received primary education, and worked as a mechanic on drainage projects of the Office of Public Works (OPW); he was also affected throughout his life by bad health, so the family, which included an elder brother and a sister, was never well off.
Young Bill Watts grew up in Athy, Co. Kildare, and attended Athy Model School, the local Church of Ireland national school, where his enthusiastic teacher Samuel Atkinson entered him for scholarship examinations and coached him in spare time. Bill came first in the examination for the presbyterian Dublin school, St Andrew's College, and returned to Dublin for an enjoyable school career, which confirmed his abilities and widened his horizons. A Polish-Jewish refugee, Ernst Scheyer, prepared him for the Trinity College sizarship examination, in which Watts again was placed first. He became a scholar in his second year (1950), studying modern languages, but, feeling under-challenged, asked for permission to begin a second degree in science. He graduated with first-class honours in modern languages in 1952, and a year later with a brilliant first in science.
A research career in either discipline would have been possible, but the young man eventually decided to work in science, and considered doing a Ph.D. thesis on plant ecology. The professor of botany, David Allardice Webb (qv), and the professor of geology, Frank Mitchell (qv), were major influences on Watts's choice of subject. Largely thanks to Mitchell, Trinity College developed a strong (and continuing) reputation in quaternary palaeoecology, the multi-disciplinary study of the interactions between climate and vegetation over the last two million years.
After two years as a junior lecturer in botany in University College Hull (later the University of Hull), Watts returned to Trinity in 1955 as a research assistant to Mitchell, and his research career began in earnest. Throughout his forty-year career he worked on pollen and plant macrofossils (generally seeds and fruits), preserved in peat under deep deposits of silt in lakebeds, developing new techniques to study sediment cores, identifying types of plants represented by the pollen record, and analysing the distributions of various species. The large amount of data and interpretation that he presented, from the late 1950s, in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy and in almost seventy book and journal articles, established his reputation as a leading scholar in the field. His collaboration with research groups in Europe and in the USA led to visiting professorships in which Watts influenced the training and careers of numerous young researchers, in Minnesota, Seattle, Washington state, and elsewhere.
Becoming a lecturer in botany in TCD in 1955, Watts was elected a fellow of the college in 1960. Five years later he became professor of botany. On giving up that chair in 1980, he was appointed to a personal chair in quaternary ecology. Alongside his research and a heavy teaching load, Watts oversaw the design and construction of a new college botanical garden with important teaching facilities for his department, at Trinity Hall, in Dartry, which opened in 1967. He also worked to establish a jointly-taught first-year biology course, backed the development of a modified faculty structure, and assisted the establishment of the pioneering Environmental Sciences Unit in the college.
Appointed senior lecturer in 1970, Watts demonstrated his evident administrative abilities in several terms as dean of the faculty of science, and he became increasingly important in college governance. In 1974 he stood as a candidate in the election for the provostship, but lost out to F. S. L. Lyons (qv). On Lyons's retirement in 1981, Watts was elected to replace him, and served as provost to 1991. His ten years in the post formed one of the most eventful and expansive periods in the history of TCD, though when he took office the college's finances and future could not have been described as altogether positive. Long noted for his success in securing research funding, Watts was even more successful in lobbying the Irish government for funds to develop Trinity, and he initiated, oversaw or completed a number of major building projects. Even before he became provost, Watts as senior lecturer was involved in decisions about long-term building plans, including the major refurbishments of the Examination Hall and college chapel, which returned them to eighteenth-century splendour, and the initiation of the later construction of the Hamilton Building for science. As provost, he supported the creation of a map library, new off-site book storage facilities, and a redesign of the ground floor of the Old Library and the provision of an exhibition area to showcase the Book of Kells. He saw to it that student rooms were upgraded, as was the crèche, which had been one of the first in the country for students and staff.
Watts worked hard to get private or corporate funding from wealthy individuals, such as Sami Nasr, Sir Anthony O'Reilly and Donald Keough. Almost on his own initiative, Watts decided that a new theatre in the college was desirable, and commissioned its construction; it opened in 1986. As student numbers increased from 6,000 to 9,000 during Watts's provostship, £17 million was spent on buildings. An architect who worked with the provost joked that Watts suffered from 'edifice complex'. The joke was perhaps more nuanced even than the architect realised: Watts's memoir, published in 2008, had chapter headings charting the path he had followed from his original home ('Early days') in a 'primitive' house in a former army barracks in Athy, to the Georgian elegance of Number 1, Grafton Street ('The Provost's House').
Watts and his wife were proud to share the house with visitors, especially to the very successful, small-scale classical concerts which they held in the saloon, as well as with community and scholarly visitors. Recognising that Trinity had to open up to the wider society and modernise procedures, he was amused that one of his innovations, a ceremony on the occasion of the installation of his successor in the provostship, was mistaken for a traditional event. He strongly supported plans to mark the quatercentenary of the foundation of the college, which occurred in 1992 (after the end of his term as provost); he organised an impressive firework display to allow Dublin city to share the celebrations, and commissioned celebratory histories. Several of his building plans were conceived as permanent memorials of the 400th anniversary.
One of the building projects with which Watts's name is associated came about as a result of a major disaster on 14 July 1984, one of the most damaging in TCD history, when the beautiful eighteenth-century dining hall was gutted by a fire. The cause was never certain, but several later fires, serious in themselves, may have been the result of arson. Watts oversaw the rebuilding of the dining hall and senior common room, and sponsored the creation of an impressive new space, the atrium.
Watts had been elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) in 1964. While TCD provost, he also served as president of the academy (1982–5), concurrent responsibilities which were undoubtedly very demanding. Anticipating the RIA's bicentennial anniversary in 1985, Watts worked to ensure that his successor, who would preside over celebrations, would have sufficient funding, suitable plans and increased membership to honour the occasion appropriately.
One of Watts's most significant contributions to Irish life in general, and to third-level education in particular, was his work while senior lecturer on Trinity's admissions policy, and thereafter as one of the main people involved in the rather tricky negotiations around founding the Central Admissions Office (CAO), which undertook to establish a fair and equitable system for application for college courses. Watts drafted the CAO's first articles of association, was founding chairman from 1975, and supported the nationwide introduction of a points system based entirely on school examination results, which has shaped the destiny of hundreds of thousands of students ever since.
Alongside all of his work in botany, in TCD, in the CAO and the RIA, Watts held a number of other highly significant roles in public life. He was for years on the board of Mercer's Hospital, and later the chairman. As the small voluntary hospital approached threatened closure, he took pains to facilitate staff redeployment and recommended setting up a trust to preserve the aims of the original foundation. For instance, a general practice centre called the Mary Mercer Health Centre, in honour of the original benefactor, was opened in Jobstown, a disadvantaged suburb of Co. Dublin. Watts went on to serve on the boards of several other small Dublin hospitals, and eventually became chairman of the central council of the Federated Dublin Voluntary Hospitals. Alongside his involvement with historically voluntary and charity medical provision, especially for the protestant community, Watts represented TCD's interests in often fraught negotiations on the development of teaching hospitals in the capital.
The 1987 closure of the hospital established by Dr Richard Steevens (qv) and his sister Grizel Steevens (qv), and the fate of the Worth Library, a valuable eighteenth-century medical library, caused much difficulty and dissension for its board, which included Watts. His brief record (in his memoir) of these events, which included a successful legal challenge to Watts's proposition that the Worth Library should be transferred to TCD, is of historical interest.
Despite Watts's principled opposition to the Eastern Health Board over hospital closure, he was invited by Barry Desmond, then minister for health, to chair a new body, the Health Research Board (HRB), from 1987. After three years and several funding crises, Watts sought a meeting with the next minister, Rory O'Hanlon, but subsequently decided that he had to make a public protest at the lack of financial support for any new medical research projects. He walked out of an emergency board meeting on 22 November 1989, and then resigned. The HRB subsequently instituted the Watts medal for outstanding student projects.
Even while provost, Watts was very interested in study and promotion of aspects of Ireland's environment, as well as keeping some research going (and indeed, stored lake sediment cores in the wine cellars of the Provost's House). He was secretary of the council (1966–7) and chairman (1967–9) of An Taisce, and helped revitalise a rather moribund organisation. As secretary, he sought an interview with a government minister, Donogh O'Malley (qv), to urge action on over-grazing in Killarney National Park, Ireland's only national park at the time, and also on the future of Muckross House. There was a successful outcome, and, emboldened, Watts pressed for expansion of Killarney National Park and greater protection for the local environment. He designed walking trails, and published guides to them.
Some years later, Watts suggested to the chairman of the OPW that new national parks should be established in other parts of the country; he was directly involved in discussions with the Irish-American millionaire Henry McIlvenny which led to the acquisition in 1974 of the estate that formed Glenveagh National Park in Donegal. Watts also supported the establishment of the Burren National Park, Co. Clare, and Ballycroy National Park, Co. Mayo; he was so concerned about the environmental importance of the Burren that he sought funding from Trinity Trust and personally bought sixty acres there for Trinity College, for botanical study and preservation. The botany department later sold it to the OPW as the nucleus of the Burren National Park. Watts also worked with the Land Commission to secure the preservation by An Taisce of over 4,000 acres of mountain and bog in Donegal; the traditional shilling was accepted in payment.
For a time, Watts worked with An Foras Forbartha (concerned with planning strategies), and prepared extensive material on a county-by-county basis to indicate where particularly rare species or important habitats merited protection. His experience throughout his career with planning, conservation and heritage buildings stood him in good stead when in 1991, recently retired, he agreed to become chairman of the newly established Fota Trust. He served for ten years, and, with Professor Tom Raftery of UCC and others, helped to effect great changes in the important but endangered historic landscape and buildings on Fota Island, Co. Cork, and to raise funding from state and private sources to secure the estate's future.
Watts was a governor of Marsh's Library and of the NGI, a member of the National Board for Science and Technology, and a board member of DIAS. He received numerous awards and honours, including an Sc.D. from TCD (1973), based on his published work, an honorary doctorate in science from the NUI, and an honorary doctorate in laws from QUB. In 2001 a symposium was held in his honour in the RIA, and a Festschrift published. Having returned in retirement to research in palaeoecology, in 2008 he was the first non-American scholar to receive the distinguished career award of the American Quaternary Association. In 2003 he was recognised for his achievements by his home town of Athy.
In 2008 Watts published William Watts, provost Trinity College Dublin: a memoir. Although the book contains little self-glorification and less introspection, leading some to describe it as characteristically modest, it manages to record, with scientific detachment and stoical reservation, Bill Watts's many notable and varied contributions to the life of his college, his country and his scholarly discipline.
Watts married (1954) Geraldine Magrath; she was from Belfast, had been a Trinity contemporary and was teaching in England when he started in Hull. They had two sons and one daughter. Watts died suddenly at home in Dublin on 26 April 2010. In 2014, Patrick Prendergast, provost of TCD, who had been an undergraduate during Watts's provostship, opened the Watts Building on campus, renamed to honour Bill Watts and his contribution to Trinity.