Monteith, John L

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John Lennox Monteith


John Lennox Monteith 1929 (Fairlie, Ayrshire, Scotland) - 2012 (Edinburgh, Scotland)


John was the only child of the Reverend John and Margaret Lennox Monteith and began his schooling at Paisley Grammar School before the family moved to Edinburgh when he was eleven. His father, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, died shortly afterwards. From a very early age, John showed innate scientific curiosity, encouraged by family friends who supplied him with electricity and chemistry sets. He was fond of practical jokes and experimenting with hazardous chemicals acquired from a local scientific supply shop.

A strong all-rounder at the pre-eminent George Heriot’s School, Edinburgh, and a keen participant in amateur dramatics and music, he was nevertheless propelled towards a future career in either physics or chemistry – biology being out of the question given his perceived inability to draw specimens! On leaving George Heriot’s, he studied Physics at Edinburgh University and particularly enjoyed lectures by the distinguished meteorologist, James Paton. Graduating with First Class honours, he sought opportunities in agricultural aspects of meteorology, recognising the chance to contribute to the major societal challenges of sustainable food production, while also escaping the confines of a laboratory.

Embarking on postgraduate research at Imperial College, Howard Penman, from the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, encouraged him to focus on the science of dew formation. Dew had been identified as a potentially important precursor for plant fungal infections, but it remained unclear what weather conditions were necessary for dew to form, and hence it was difficult anticipate when damage was most likely to occur. His investigations required the development of novel and highly sensitive micrometeorological instruments for the measurement of dew fall, humidity and energy fluxes. Using a method of analysis that would characterise many of his future papers, he recognised that the balance of incoming and outgoing energy at ground level determined the source of the dew (i.e. soil or atmosphere) and the amount that could be formed.

In 1954 John moved to Rothamsted Experimental Station as a Scientific Officer and began working under Penman, who was carrying out seminal research into how variation in weather conditions affected soil moisture. Penman had developed a method to predict the rate of evaporation from wet surfaces, but this did not take account of the complicating effects that vegetation imposed on water loss. By harnessing the analogy of electrical resistance, John showed how to account for surface conductance of water, and produced the Penman-Monteith equation that more correctly accounted for wind and surface effects. The approach was subsequently adapted to model the behaviour of any natural system involving mass or energy exchange in fields ranging from animal energetics to pollutant deposition. While at Rothamsted, John also made, in collaboration with Geza Szeicz, some of the world’s first measurements of carbon dioxide exchange (CO2) between the land surface and the atmosphere.

In 1967 John was appointed to the newly-created Chair of Environmental Physics at the School of Agriculture, Sutton Bonington, a faculty of the University of Nottingham. The discipline of Environmental Physics as a defined field of study really became established with the publication of “Principles of Environmental Physics” in 1973, later editions of which were written in collaboration with his colleague Mike Unsworth. With funding from the Oversees Development Agency, his growing team established a unique set of large microclimate-controlled greenhouses which allowed realistic field-scale assessments of the growth of crops from the semi-arid tropics under different environmental conditions. JLM became increasingly interested in the factors determining crop growth and yield, and eventually spent a six month sabbatical at NASA in Maryland, USA, developing approaches to assess crop production from space using remote sensing. The Nottingham group continued to develop micrometeorological instruments for measuring physical attributes of the environment, collaborating with two major suppliers of state-of-the-art environmental research instrumentation for Britain and Europe, Delta-T Devices, and Campbell Scientific Ltd, for whom John was a co-founder. John and his colleagues at Nottingham developed diffusion porometers to measure the stomatal conductance of plants and tube solarimeters to measure shortwave solar radiation. Much of the progress in environmental physics made in the past 30 years has resulted directly from the availability of good field instrumentation provided by these companies. Although JLM had not previously considered teaching, he took very naturally to the task. Many students and colleagues had their careers shaped and altered by their associations with him, and many now hold important positions in organisations across the world.

JLM led the Environmental Science section of the former Division of Plant and Environmental Science at the University of Nottingham between 1967-1986. In 1987 he became Director of the Resource Management Program at the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, where he served until 1991. On his return to Edinburgh, he was invited to become Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology at Penicuik, Scotland.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1971 and of Edinburgh in 1972. In addition, he was a Fellow (1951) and Honorary Fellow (1997) of the Royal Meteorological Society, Fellow (1966) of the Institute of Physics, Fellow (1976) of the Institute of Biology, and served as president of the Royal Meteorological Society between 1978-1980. He was awarded the honour of Doctorate of Science by the University of Edinburgh in 1989. During his career he served on many national and international scientific committees and on the editorial boards of prominent scientific publications.

John had a multi-faceted personality and a wide range of interests. He was an accomplished organist, and for many years served the communities of Sutton Bonington Methodist Church and Mayfield Salisbury Church, Edinburgh in this capacity. In Hyderabad, he played the organ at the St John’s Church in Secunderabad. He had a deep love of the countryside, and of wilderness areas, particularly the Scottish Highlands where he enjoyed hill-walking. He was a keen photographer, and gardener.

Hydrological Achievements[edit]

John pioneered the application of physical principles in the study of how plants and animals interact with their immediate environment, or microclimate. In a career spanning over half a century, he is perhaps best known for the Penman-Monteith equation that has become the basis for guidelines for estimating irrigation water requirements used by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Reference Material[edit]

Source: [Source: International Society for Agricultural Meteorology obituary]

Major Publications[edit]


Monteith, J L, 1975, Vegetation and the Atmosphere, Vol. 1: Principles, Academic Press.

Monteith, J L, 1976, Vegetation and the Atmosphere, Vol. 2: Case Studies, Academic Press.

Monteith, J L and Unsworth, M, 2013, Principles of Environmental Physics: Plants, Animals, and the Atmosphere, Academic Press.


Monteith, J. L. "Evaporation and environment." In Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol, vol. 19, no. 205-23, p. 4. 1965.

Monteith, James L., and C. J. Moss. "Climate and the efficiency of crop production in Britain [and discussion]." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 281, no. 980 (1977): 277-294.

Monteith, J.L., 1972. Solar radiation and productivity in tropical ecosystems. Journal of applied ecology, 9(3), pp.747-766.

Monteith, J.L., 1981. Evaporation and surface temperature. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 107(451), pp.1-27.

Choudhury, B.J. and Monteith, J.L., 1988. A four‐layer model for the heat budget of homogeneous land surfaces. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 114(480), pp.373-398.

Monteith, J.L., 1995. A reinterpretation of stomatal responses to humidity. Plant, Cell & Environment, 18(4), pp.357-364.

Monteith, J.L., 1995. Accommodation between transpiring vegetation and the convective boundary layer. Journal of Hydrology, 166(3), pp.251-263.