OBITUARY: Hans Lissmann

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The Independent Online
Hans Lissmann's well-ordered life as a Cambridge don - as a Fellow of Trinity College, elected to the Royal Society in 1954, University Reader in Zoology at Cambridge and a distinguished scientist with a world-wide reputation for his work and publications on the physiology and behaviour of fishes and other organisms - contrasted sharply with his turbulent and adventurous early years.

He was born in 1909 into a prosperous German family, the younger son of Robert and Ebba Lissmann, who had settled in Ukraine, then part of Imperial Russia. In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, the family was sent into internal exile in Siberia. Here Hans and his older brother had to live independent lives while their parents worked. Five years later, in 1919, when allowed to return home, the family made their way on foot with a horse-drawn cart to the Volga River. In 1922, they reached Hamburg, where the boys' formal education began.

Lissmann's biological career started at Hamburg University in Professor von Uexkull's department, where he took his PhD in 1932, based on the behaviour of Siamese fighting fish (Betta splendens). He accepted a travelling studentship to work on Lake Balaton in Hungary, but when there found that he was expected to disseminate Nazi propaganda, which he refused to do. In very straitened circumstances he worked his way, partly by testing anti-fouling paints on ships, to India. Here the Academic Assistance Council offered him a grant enabling him to join the Cambridge University Zoological Department under Professor James Gray.

Arriving in Cambridge in 1934, Lissmann was recognised as an experimental zoologist of outstanding ability, working mainly on the mechanics of animal locomotion and sensory capabilities of snakes, fishes, molluscs and other creatures. In 1966 he was appointed Reader in Experimental Zoology and, in 1969, made Director of the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour.

Lissmann's best-known work relates to the physiology of the function of electric organs in fish. His studies included marine electric rays (Torpedo electrophorus), which stun their prey, and in tropical freshwaters the amazing convergences of the entirely unrelated mormyriform fishes in African waters with those of the gymnotiform "electric eels" in South American streams and rivers.

In these convergent freshwater groups his elegant laboratory experiments, followed by field observations, demonstrated that their weak, and species- characteristic, electric discharges are used in the detection of the fish's surroundings, location of prey, and also for communication between individual fishes. Both African and South American fish groups are nocturnal or live in turbid waters, where sight is of little use.

Working with Hans Lissmann in the field was a delight: he was an enthusiastic observer with a wide knowledge of many groups of animals, and his varied upbringing had given him practical experience of how to live under field conditions. He also brought with him a delightful sense of humour and a remarkable and stimulating knowledge of the scientific literature.

Lissmann's studies on animal navigation continued at Cambridge and on trips abroad after his official retirement in 1977, when he was provided with a small laboratory near the Zoological Department's field station in Cambridge. He enjoyed music, but continued to read widely and his former students greatly enjoyed visiting him for his stimulating comments on the progress of biological studies.

On one of his last collecting trips, to Sri Lanka, he found amphibia with electric organs resembling those he had studied in fishes, and earthworms moving like the snakes whose locomotion he had studied much earlier in his life.

Hans Werner Lissmann, zoologist: born Ukraine 30 April 1909; FRS 1954; Fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge 1955-95; Assistant Director of Research, Department of Zoology, Cambridge University 1947-55, Lecturer in Experimental Zoology 1955-66, Reader 1966-77 (Emeritus), Director, Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour 1969-77; married 1949 Corinne Foster-Barham (one son); died Cambridge 21 April 1995.