When science brought him to brave mighty waves in the Southern Ocean, and in the African bush to tremble before an angry she-elephant, the zoologist Dick Laws never dreamed that it would one day also make him a crucial link in world politics.
For on 2 April 1982 the man who built his own hut in Antarctica, survived a whaling trip on which four crew died, and studied Uganda’s and Kenya’s largest creatures, was the channel through whom news of the start of the Falklands War reached the Cabinet.
Laws was director of the British Antarctic Survey and was seeking news of 28 of his staff based on South Georgia, 1,000 miles east and south of the Falklands. From the BAS’s ship Bransfield, which was in the area, and the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service, as well as Argentinian exchanges on VHF – he could hear that Argentinian landing craft were going ashore at the Falklands capital, Port Stanley.
“I tell elsewhere how I passed this information to Whitehall and the Cabinet”, is all Laws himself wrote, in an unfinished autobiography. His action, however, set off an ocean turbulence grander than any made by even the world’s largest animal, the blue whale, also an object of his studies. Through the sea-swell there thrashed instead the Royal Navy’s Task Force led by Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward in the aircraft carrier Hermes, to vanquish the illegally invading foe in just over 10 weeks.
Laws’s astute conduct during the crisis so raised the BAS’s prestige that he was appointed CBE and the BAS received extra funding. Three years later, in 1985, still under his directorship, BAS scientists discovered the ozone hole in the earth’s atmosphere. Laws was also elected Master of a Cambridge college, St Edmund’s, in 1985, where he stayed until 1996, gaining for it a charter as a full college and increasing student numbers fivefold.
As a boy he had observed rock-pool specimens on family holidays. He was the son of a First World War soldier so badly wounded he had lost a leg, and whose earlier adventures, including being a lumberjack in Canada, had been curtailed to a clerical job in Newcastle upon Tyne. The middle brother of three, Laws attended Dame Allan’s School, where he captained the rugby team and won a scholarship to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. There, having studied botany and anatomy, he took a First in Part II Zoology.
He distilled his love of walking and drawing or photographing the things he saw, by taking a job in Antarctica in 1947 with the BAS’s forerunner, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey. “I had to build my own Antarctic laboratory with timbers from a derelict Norwegian whaling station”, he recalled.
He stayed on Signy Island, in the South Orkneys. The aluminium tags he improvised in the 1940s for following the habits of seals were so well fixed that a colleague found one, still attached to a flipper and the seal alive and well, 20 years later. With a staff of two Laws was Base Leader, Magistrate and Postmaster until 1953, when, exempted by his Antarctic work from having to do National Service, he came home and gained his PhD.
On the voyage to England on RMS Andes, in Lisbon he met Maureen Holmes, daughter of a former Indian Army soldier who had gone into business in Portugal; she was travelling to London to do a secretarial course. The couple would marry in 1954, and have three sons.
His next post gave him the chance to study whales. Seconded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as a biologist to the whaling factory ship F/F Balaena, he became a whaling inspector, daily facing the hazards of hawsers, sharpened whale-backbone-ripping hooks, and the maws of the open “digesters” down which the whale flesh and innards slithered as they were processed.
During the seven-month trip one crew member was crushed to death by a heavy metal quadrant and another beheaded by a harpoon gun that went off as he was disarming it. Two crew members jumped overboard. Laws himself faced mountainous seas that threatened to overturn the “catcher” vessel Setter 9 while he was on board. Having established, among other discoveries, the presence of growth-rings in the teeth of seals, Laws looked for and found similar evidence for growth, reproduction, and age in whales: “My work” he wrote, “had been crowned with success”. He spent the next seven years, until 1961, in England as Principal Scientific Officer at the National Institute of Oceanography.
His next challenge was Africa, first as Director of the Nuffield Unit of Tropical Animal Ecology in Uganda, and then as Director of the Tsavo Research Project in Kenya. His family came with him, and they lived in a house of palm logs with a thatched roof of papyrus reeds in Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park. Elephants snored by their windows; hyenas scavenged on the verandah; a lioness came up their drive; a monitor lizard got into the house; and his wife grew used to making hippopotamus stew. He was, he wrote, “entranced and seduced by Africa, a biologist’s paradise”, but had a close shave when on foot in the bush and faced with a huge female elephant protecting her calf: “It looked straight down at me, and looking back up at it, I thought – “this is it!” But the elephant turned away.
His work on elephant numbers, which had increased in Uganda’s Murchison National Park under human encroachment on their space elsewhere, led to his being invited to Tsavo National Park in Kenya in 1967 to carry out a management cull of 300 elephants where over-grazing had reduced thorn-bushes to grass.
But he and the park warden, David Sheldrick, disagreed when Laws recommended culling 3,000 elephants to maintain stability. The African park authorities supported Sheldrick, and Laws resigned. Yet after drought caused 10,000 elephants to die of starvation at Tsavo some years later, Laws felt his policy was vindicated, and would have saved animals’ lives.
He rejoined the British Antarctic survey as head of its life sciences division, and in 1973 succeeded its founder-director, the explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs. The BAS now awards an annual Laws Prize in his name. He sat on many scientific committees, and was awarded the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Bruce Medal, the Zoological Society of London’s Scientific Medal, and the Polar Medal.
Richard Maitland Laws, scientist: born Whitley Bay, Northumberland 23 April 1926; CBE 1983; married 1954 Maureen Holmes (there sons); died Cambridge 7 October 2014.Reuse content