Angela Milner: a life in science

Museum palaeontologist Paul Barrett remembers his former colleague Angela Milner, who passed away earlier this month.

Dr Angela Milner (née Girven, b. 1947) was one of the most influential figures in the field of vertebrate palaeontology, with interests spanning 350 million years of Earth history. She spent most of her career at the Natural History Museum, London, joining its ranks as a curator in 1976 and rising through the organization to become Assistant Keeper of Palaeontology, a position that she held until retirement in 2009.

A keen early interest in biology led Angela to the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to study Zoology, with the aim of becoming a microbiologist. However, one of the course lecturers, Alec Panchen, inspired her to enter the world of palaeontology, and she went on to study for a PhD under his supervision.

At the time, the UK was one of only two major centres for studying the origin and early evolution of tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates, including amphibians, reptiles and mammals), in part spurred by the abundant material found in local coals. Angela was assigned a little-known and unusual group called the nectrideans and produced the benchmark study on these animals, establishing a reputation as an expert anatomist and taxonomist.

She maintained active research on early tetrapods for over four decades, often working on these groups in collaboration with her husband – Andrew Milner – whom she met while they were both postgraduates.

Working at the Museum

Following her appointment to the museum Angela’s research programme diversified, most notably including the dinosaurs under her curatorial care. She became most famous for the naming (with Alan Charig) of the bizarre British theropod dinosaur Baryonyx walkeri, a totally unexpected discovery, which led The Sun to its immortal headline ‘Claw blimey! A new dinosaur!’.

​In addition, Angela’s ornithological interests extended to fossil birds and included a major study on the brain structure of the iconic earliest bird Archaeopteryx, using CT-scanning. The outstanding results of this work gave Angela the leverage to lobby single-handedly (and successfully) for the Natural History Museum to acquire its own CT-scanner, having realised that this new technology would be a game-changer, a prediction that proved more than prescient.

An exceptionally able and pragmatic administrator, Angela oversaw several major building renovations and managed a large team of researchers and curators, as well as helping with day-to-day running of the collections. Unparalleled knowledge of these collections made her invaluable to visitors and staff alike: many visiting scholars owe enormous debts of gratitude for the help and hospitality offered during their research visits.

A skilled communicator, Angela was the public face of dinosaur research at the Museum for many years and the intellectual force and main driver behind the Museum’s current Dinosaur Gallery, which is enjoyed by more than 3 million visitors every year.

An avid traveller, holidays with Andrew took her in search of wildlife all over the globe and she conducted fieldwork during major expeditions to the Sahara and China, and was one of the first westerners to be invited to work in the latter.

Interests in natural history, gardening and classical music kept Angela busy in retirement and she continued to be active in research.

A great loss to the international palaeontological community, Angela passed away on 13 August 2021 following a short illness that, true to form, was kept stoically confidential. She is survived by her husband Andrew.​

%d bloggers like this: