Professor Niels Bolwig

Behavioural biologist who was one of the first to study primates in the wild
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The Independent Online

Niels Bolwig, entomologist and behavioural biologist: born Frederiksberg, Denmark 26 September 1911; Senior Lecturer in Zoology, Witwatersrand University 1946-59; Senior Lecturer in Zoology, Makerere College 1959-62; Professor of Zoology, Ibadan University 1962-72 (Emeritus); Guest Professor of Comparative Psychology, University of Oklahoma 1966-70; Senior Research Fellow, University of Copenhagen 1973-75; Professor of Biology, National University of Lesotho 1977-79 (Emeritus); married 1946 Bridget Holmes (two daughters); died Bath, Somerset 10 September 2004.

Niels Bolwig, entomologist and behavioural biologist: born Frederiksberg, Denmark 26 September 1911; Senior Lecturer in Zoology, Witwatersrand University 1946-59; Senior Lecturer in Zoology, Makerere College 1959-62; Professor of Zoology, Ibadan University 1962-72 (Emeritus); Guest Professor of Comparative Psychology, University of Oklahoma 1966-70; Senior Research Fellow, University of Copenhagen 1973-75; Professor of Biology, National University of Lesotho 1977-79 (Emeritus); married 1946 Bridget Holmes (two daughters); died Bath, Somerset 10 September 2004.

Niels Bolwig was one of the first behavioural biologists to study primates in their natural habitats. Born in Denmark, he spent most of his working life in Africa, retiring in 1979 to England. His autobiography, published in 1988, was appropriately entitled From Mosquitoes to Elephants.

The judicial purge in Denmark after the Second World War came as a shock for Bolwig, who, on several occasions during the war, had stood up against the German occupiers, hiding weapons for the Danish underground in his beehives. He had never thought it possible that Danish collaborators with the Nazis would turn resistance fighters overnight and rejoice in the humiliation of others: old enemies and scapegoats.

He considered himself fortunate when a letter arrived from Johannesburg inviting him to take up a post as lecturer in zoology at Witwatersrand University. Although he had just finished his doctoral dissertation at the University of Copenhagen, he left for England, thus becoming the university's first DrPhil in absentia.

There, in June 1946, having secured visas and boat tickets for South Africa, he married Bridget Holmes, whom he had met some years before in Copenhagen. The newly weds set out on the first boat for Cape Town, the Dutch steamer Orange Fontain, which did the voyage in 18 days.

Bolwig had cherished a dream about Africa since childhood. Growing up in a cultured home - his father ran a local bookshop and his mother worked as a porcelain painter - Bolwig took early to natural history, anthropology and the visual arts. He read widely and spent much time in drawing from nature, skills that would later be of use when he drew his dissections, anatomical preparations or animal displays.

He took a zoology degree in 1938 from the University of Copenhagen, and during the war years worked as a scientific assistant at the State Laboratory for Plant Pathology, where he also became involved with pest control. One day he received a visit from an official. "You see," said the man, "we are not really interested in the life of these animals, only how best we may kill them."

From that moment Bolwig only looked for an opportunity to escape from the vermin-killers while working hard in his spare time to finish his dissertation, published in 1946 as Senses and Sense Organs of the Anterior End of the House Fly Larvae.

His encounter with Africa's wildlife and people was engaged and passionate from the start, and typically his teaching was followed by field excursions for the students. In 1947 he obtained permission from the Portuguese authorities of Mozambique to build a marine biology station on Inhaca island, and in the 1950s he took part in several expeditions to the Kalahari Desert to study the ecology of insects and rodents.

Encouraged by the anatomist Raymond Dart, Bolwig took up the study of primates in order to throw light on the behaviour of early and modern man by carrying out comparative behavioural studies on primates and aboriginal people like the pygmies. He thus became one of the first to do ethological studies of primates in the wild.

On a journey through Africa in 1958-59, which came to be dominated by shortage of time and funding, he nevertheless succeeded in carry out observations on a number of species in their natural habitats. He first went to the island of Nossi-Bé off the north-west coast of Madagascar to study the behaviour of various lemur species, and he arrived there only a few months after Alison Bishop (later Jolly) had been there to study lemurs.

He then went on to Uganda where, from a camp he built on the saddle between the Virunga volcanoes near Kisoro, he made daily excursions during two months, assisted by the famous forest guide Reuben, trying to get close enough to a troupe of mountain gorillas to make systematic observations. This, however, only happened to George Schaller, when he came to the site as member of John Emlen's African Primate Expedition from Wisconsin University, and for whom Bolwig's field notes served as an initial impetus.

Bolwig finally went to the Kibale Forest near Ruwenzori, where he saw chimpanzees, macaques, and colobus monkeys. His account of this spectacular journey, illustrated by hundreds of colour photographs, still awaits publication.

Family life for the Bolwigs was shared over the years with a menagerie of animals - Chippie the meerkat, two young baboons, Jenny and Joe, as well as ring-tailed lemurs and, at one stage, a baby orphaned elephant, Bodundria, with whom Niels would bed down when she was lonely. In Uganda he would give lectures with Freddie, a baby patas monkey, sitting on his shoulder and sucking his earlobe for comfort.

The Bolwigs were forced to leave Johannesburg in 1959, because of their opposition to apartheid. They went first to Makerere College in Uganda and then in 1962 to the University of Ibadan, where Bolwig's inaugural lecture as Professor of Zoology was entitled Why Should Nigeria Bother about Nature Conservation? and, as president for the government's Wildlife Preservation Committee, he wrote the Nigerian Wildlife Protection Laws. He spent four years, 1966-70, as Guest Professor of Comparative Psychology at the University of Oklahoma, acting also as curator of Oklahoma City Zoo, before returning for two years to Ibadan. After five years in Copenhagen, he was back in Africa as Professor of Biology at the National University of Lesotho, retiring to Somerset in 1979.

An original experimentalist and observer, who designed and made his own minute surgical instruments, Bolwig initiated new behavioural observations to test theories on Man's origin without, however, bringing them to a conclusion, a job which required more resources and time to complete.

Arne F. Petersen

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