Professor Sir Richard Southwood

Ecologist and environmental scientist at Imperial and Oxford and a perceptive government adviser
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The Independent Online

Although he was one of the most notable ecologists and zoologists of his generation, Richard Southwood leaves an even more lasting legacy through his superb skills as mentor and builder of academic departments - first at Imperial College, London, and later at Oxford University - whose distinguished individuals added up to more than the sum of the parts. A disproportionate number of the world's top ecological researchers today are British, and almost all of them were directly influenced (often given their first job) by him.

He was born in Northfleet, near Gravesend, in 1931, and spent his boyhood on the dairy farm in Kent that was managed, and later owned, by his grandfather and father. After Gravesend Grammar School he went on to Imperial College, London.

Southwood published his first research paper at the age of 16. It dealt with previously unrecorded findings of insects in new locations in Kent, and was published in the Entomologist's Monthly Magazine. This interest in descriptive natural history - what is actually there, in a particular place at a particular time - was consolidated in 1959 with the publication (jointly with Dennis Leston) of Land and Water Bugs of the British Isles, an enduring classic. Southwood was to go on to attack ecological questions of wider importance, but his research was always grounded on an acute appreciation of the smaller living things which help run the world.

While at school, and later during university vacations, Southwood worked as a volunteer at the Rothamsted Experimental Station near Harpenden, and his first "serious" research paper came from this work, in 1949, when he was 18. One of his last papers, 54 years later in 2003, derived from his continuing collaboration with this institution. Most importantly to him, it was while a research student at Rothamsted that he met and married Alison Harden.

He next moved to Imperial College's Field Station at Silwood Park, near Ascot, to work on the ecology of fruit flies. By 1967 he was, at 35, Head of the Department of Zoology and Applied Entomology, and Director of the Field Station. Later he undertook the non-trivial job of welding the Departments of Zoology, Plant Sciences and Biochemistry into an integrated Division of Life Sciences. Under his aegis as Dean of Life Sciences, Imperial College became notable both for its integrated undergraduate biology course, and for research in ecology and evolution.

Southwood's own earlier research dealt mainly with applications to the control of insects that are pests either because they eat crops or transmit disease. This led, however, to broader work on the life history strategies of insects and on the dynamics of insect communities. One of his last research papers brings together his love of natural history and his more general focus on community structure in a study of insect communities on oak trees in the UK.

Under Southwood's guidance, the Field Station at Silwood Park (where I spent every summer from 1973 to 1988, before I moved to Britain) developed into one of the world's great centres for ecological research. At the level of basic science, the citation record for papers bearing the Imperial College address is remarkable. At the level of practical impact, if you attend the International Entomological Congress, held every four years, you will find individuals from all around the world - particularly the developing world - who trained at Silwood Park. The Imperial College reunion dinner held at these events typically includes half of the entomologists from Africa. Southwood's house backed on to the Field Station, and there he held memorable summer parties by his swimming pool.

In 1979 Southwood accepted the invitation to the Linacre Chair of Zoology at Oxford University and fellowship of Merton College. He spent the rest of his career there, becoming Vice-Chancellor from 1989 to 1993, then returning to the Zoology Department as Professor and later Emeritus Professor. The Oxford Zoology Department had a distinguished history, including two Nobel Prize- winners and two of the most influential ecologists of the 20th century, David Lack and Charles Elton. Even so, Southwood's advent carried it to greater influence on the international stage. For about 15 years, four of the 18 Royal Society Research Professors were to be found there, including Bill Hamilton, the most important evolutionary biologist of our generation, brought back to the UK from the United States by Southwood.

Southwood was the first Oxford University Vice-Chancellor since 1632 who was not a head of college. He inherited a campaign launched in 1988 to raise £220m; he raised the target to £340m, and achieved it. He initiated other changes, great and small. Small: it has become possible for academic staff to consort with the Vice-Chancellor without wearing a gown. Great: he began the process which, following the lengthy deliberations characterising such things at Oxford, has led to very significant rationalisation of its governance.

Dick Southwood's lifelong commitment to teaching, at every level, stemmed naturally from his interest in people. He particularly emphasised the desirability of engaging with first-year undergraduates, and gave the introductory lectures at Oxford every year - including those of his Vice-Chancellorship - for 18 years. These lectures were the basis for his 2003 "trade book", The Story of Life, which I commend to readers for its breadth and lucidity. The text Ecological Methods was first published in 1966, and went through several editions, each extensively and conscientiously revised, to remain today the canonical such reference work on both sides of the Atlantic.

Southwood also played an important part as adviser to successive British governments. As Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution from 1981 to 1986, he was responsible for the report Lead in the Environment, which led directly to the phasing out of leaded petrol in the UK. He subsequently chaired the National Radiation Protection Board, and later was inaugural co-chair (with John Gummer) of the Round Table on Sustainable Development. In the 1980s he chaired the joint UK-Swedish study which aimed to ameliorate problems associated with acidic emissions from UK power stations affecting Scandinavian forests and rivers.

He chaired the first study of BSE (mad cow disease), which was responsible for the changes in regulation of cattle feed that ended the epidemic in cattle, and the changes in abattoir practices that kept infectious material out of the human food chain from then on. At the time, it was not known whether the BSE prion would, if ingested by humans, cause disease. By analogy with scrapie in sheep - which has been around for centuries, but with no known effect on humans - the best guess was there would be no problem. Southwood's report was, however, properly cautious, emphasising this was only a best guess, not the certitude that others misrepresented it as being.

Southwood made many contributions to basic and applied research in ecology, to university administration (with emphasis on getting the job done and minimising bureaucracy), and to public life more generally. A warm, perceptive and acutely intelligent individual, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1977 and knighted in 1984.

Robert M. May