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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Obituary: Prof. Sir Richard "Dick" Southwood
Earth Info is very sad to have learnt that Prof. Sir Richard "Dick" Southwood died on Wednesday 26 October, 2005.

Prof. Southwood was the one of the fathers of modern ecology and an important mentor to many ecologists.

Prof. Southwood founded and chaired the Division of Life Sciences at Imperial College London. At Imperial's Silwood Park field station he was responsible for fostering a golden period in British ecology and entomology, and this led to him moving to Oxford University in 1979.

In addition to fulfilling the requirements of their thesis examiners, many of Prof. Southwood's PhD students were encouraged to become an expert in their own order of insects. This helped his students to widen their scientific horizons, and to ensure that the world benefitted from a new generation of top-class entomologists.

A former Vice-President of the Royal Society from 1982-1984 and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Prof. Southwood was responsible for attracting both Lord Robert May and Bill Hamilton to Oxford University's Zoology Department.

Prof. Southwood was also the person the government turned to for emergency scientific advice, in the form of the Southwood Working Party, at the outbreak of Mad Cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) in the UK. His Working Party was horrified to discover that heavily infected cows were still going into the human food chain. As a result, they immediately recommended that all diseased cattle carcasses should be burnt, and that cattle feed containing ruminants (thought to be the source of infection) should be banned.

In addition to producing his own important work on insects and ecological methods, Prof. Southwood encouraged the scientists under him to become more inter-disciplinary. This led to an excellent atmosphere for both academic research and co-operation. It also resulted in Richard Dawkins popularising Bill Hamilton's work on kin selection, and to the physicist Lord Robert May refining his own ideas on chaos theory in relation to biological systems.

Very kindly, Prof. Southwood once told me in the lift at work (where he talked to almost everybody) that he considered me to be his academic grandson, as two of my Phd supervisors had completed their PhDs under him. Today, I feel that all ecologists have lost the equivalent of a wise and supportive grandfather.

Correction: Many thanks to Prof. Paul Harvey for correcting two factual errors in my original posting. The detailed obituary he co-authored with Prof. John Krebs for the Times newspaper can be read here.