Obituary: Joe Eggeling

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The Independent Online
William Joseph Eggeling, botanist and ornithologist: born Upper Largo, Fife 18 July 1909; Chief Conservator of Forests, Uganda 1945-50, Tanganyika 1950-54; Chief Scientific Officer and Deputy Director Nature Conservancy (Scotland) 1955-69, Director 1969-70; CBE 1970; married 1939 Jessie Tothill (died 1988; two sons, three daughters); died Perth 10 February 1994.

THE NATIONAL TRUST for Scotland initiated in the 1960s a series of hugely popular and successful ornithological/educational cruises round the Scottish coast and islands, chartering British India's ship school Dunera and other ships. Frank Fraser Darling and Henry Douglas-Home were among the 'experts' brought along to describe the birds that we observed. Yet, in the opinion of Ben Rogers, Captain of the Dunera and later Commodore of the British India Fleet, no one used his ship's tannoy to greater descriptive effect than Joe Eggeling.

Lodged in the memory of those who sailed on National Trust cruises is his vivid scholarly description of gannets and fulmars, skuas and other seabirds, be it early in the morning as the 12,000-ton ship squeezed through the Stacks of St Kilda or anchored late in the evening off Fair Isle in the summer light. Unlike too many others Eggeling neither blethered nor gossiped on the loudspeaker - he was a fount of relevant, accurate, interesting ornithological information.

Eggeling kept in his wallet a quotation from Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince:

'What a remarkable phenomenon,' said the Professor of Ornithology as he was passing over the bridge. 'A swallow in winter]' And he wrote a long letter to the local paper. Everyone quoted it. It was full of so many words that they could not understand.

Eggeling always remembered that descriptions of birds or plants had to be simple so that understanding could be conveyed to his hearers.

Joe Eggeling was born in 1909, in Upper Largo on the Fife Coast, into a medical household. Perhaps he was doubly fortunate, in that not only did he have a family that cared about learning but a family who could cope with his tuberculosis of the hip which necessitated his spending 18 months of his childhood on his back. His father cut jigsaws and puzzles for him; the two were extremely close. As soon as the tuberculosis was under control Eggeling went to St Mary's Preparatory School, Melrose, where the 8/11-year-olds walked in the Eildon Hills. It was these expeditions and the encouragement of Miss Baxter and Miss Rintoul, the authors of Birds of the Fife Wetlands, which encouraged the young Eggeling in his naturalist instincts. Even today the boy's records of the nesting habits of Fife birds remain an important source of information since many of the wetlands have been drained into cornfields.

After successfully completing his secondary education at Giggleswick School in Yorkshire, Eggeling studied forestry at Edinburgh University and graduated with the medal of distinction. He went for a year to Brasenose College, Oxford, where his thesis for the PhD was on the indigenous trees of Uganda.

In 1931 Eggeling joined the Colonial Forestry Service, an institution which was a credit to the British Empire. He undertook the first serious survey of the natural forests of East Africa, many of which have now disappeared. The 1930s were the last period when much of the ancient rainforest was undisturbed. Eggeling discovered many new plants hitherto unknown to man, such as the tree orchid 'Eggelingiana'. His inventory and management plan of the Budongo Forest in Bunyoro was, according to J. Morton Boyd, himself one of the considerable ecologists of our time, a masterpiece in tropical forestry. By 1939 Eggeling had collected no fewer than 3,800 specimens for Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Although fieldwork was Eggeling's first love he was promoted to the centre of forestry for Uganda at Entebbe and became chief conservator of forests in Uganda in 1945.

Eggeling married in 1939 in Khartoum Jessie, daughter of the distinguished naturalist John Douglas Tothill who had become famous as the saviour of the coconut crops in Fiji by applying systematic knowledge of pests and pesticides. Sharing her father's interests and that of her husband, Jessie was to have a supremely happy partnership with Joe Eggeling for over a half a century. Not only were they distinguished conservators. At a time when there was considerable friction between expatriates and the leaders of the indigenous people, Eggeling made great efforts to understand his African hosts. In 1953 the Senior Tutor of King's College, Cambridge, LP Wilkinson, asked me and two undergraduate friends to come and see him. There was a Bugandan African coming to the college, he said, called Abu Mayanja. He was being sent by Sir Andrew Cohen, who had been faced with the choice of either sending Mayaja, a hunger-strike student leader at Makerere College, to Cambridge or to prison. Would we, Wilkinson asked, make it our business to be kind to Mayanja? When I first met Mayanja he said, 'You are a Scot and I like Scots.' The reason was Joe Eggeling.

In 1950 Eggeling moved to Tanzania and devoted himself in particular to the development of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Ngorongoro was to remain a lifelong interest on which he frequently lectured as a member of its advisory council.

Chance can often play a paramount role in any man's life. In 1953 when he was home on leave, Eggeling, an excellent shot, was shooting at Tentsmuir, east of St Andrews in Fife. He brought down what he thought was an ordinary goose. In fact it was a goose of a rare species, bearing a nature conservancy ring. Eggeling contacted the Nature Conservancy. Dr John Berry, its chief executive, was impressed that a man who had perpetrated such a mistake should make it his business to let the Conservancy know. Eighteen months later, when Eggeling decided for family reasons to return to Britain, he contacted Berry with a letter beginning 'I'm the bloke who shot your goose'. To Berry's enormous credit he appointed Eggeling as his chief scientific officer; and then, in 1956, as his deputy.

They worked in partnership for 15 years, with a heavy load being carried by Eggeling on account of Berry's ill-health. Thus it was that Eggeling did many of the major negotiations for the acquisition of reserves. It was Eggeling who undertook the transfer of the island of Rhum to the Conservancy and he himself made a remarkable study of the flowers of Rhum in association with the Viscount of Arbuthnott, later to become chairman. It was Eggeling who did the work which brought Torridon and Ben Eighe and above all the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth to the Conservancy. A rare pair of fulmars which became famous on the Isle of May were christened Joe and Jessie because they were as inseparable as the Eggelings.

On Berry's retirement in 1969 Eggeling took over as Director (Scotland) of the Nature Conservancy, retiring a year later and being appointed CBE. In retirement he moved to Dunkeld and started life all over again founding local naturalist societies. In the words of Sir Jamie Stormonth Darling, the former Director of the Scottish National Trust, 'Joe Eggeling was in every way a big man.' His memorial is his work in Uganda and Tanganyika laying the foundations of the conservation organisations, and the nature reserves of Scotland.

(Photograph omitted)