Obituary: Denis Owen

David A.s. Smith
Wednesday 23 October 1996 23:02

Denis Owen was one of the leading British ecologists and naturalists of the century. His outstanding contribution to research in ecology and related disciplines is recorded in the 240 scientific papers, 40 popular articles and 10 books which have flowed from his pen in a steady stream since 1949 when he was only 18 years old.

He attended Roan Grammar School, Greenwich, leaving school at 16 with a modest School Certificate to work in the Bird Room at the British Museum (Natural History). After two years spent classifying bird skins he left for National Service at 18. His later pre-eminence as a field ornithologist owed much to this early training.

From 1951 to 1958 Owen was a Field Assistant at the Edward Grey Institute for Field Ornithology, Oxford University, under its eminent Director Dr David Lack, who soon recognised Owen's ability and recommended him for a degree course in Zoology at Oxford. Remarkably, Owen had already written 43 papers by the time he graduated in 1958. In 1955 he met the highly talented Jennifer Bak, also an undergraduate zoologist, who was to become his first wife and long-term research collaborator.

Immediately upon graduation in 1958 Denis and Jennifer married and left Oxford to become Teaching Fellows at the University of Michigan; they also engaged in research for PhD degrees, he working on owls and she on wasps.

During his four years in the US, Owen not only obtained a doctorate but diversified his research interests to include insects. He collected the first records from the New World on the phenomenon, much researched in England, of industrial melanism in the peppered moth. He also investigated the ecological genetics of spittle bugs.

In 1962 Owen was appointed Lecturer in Zoology at the University College of Makerere (now Makerere University), Uganda, where he stayed four years. With tireless enthusiasm he studied the ecological genetics of butterflies and snails and developed an unrivalled knowledge of the African butterfly fauna. At the same time, he began to observe and collect data on human ecology, a subject which was to become a major teaching and research interest.

Owen left Uganda in 1966 with an already established reputation as a tropical ecologist to take the Chair of Zoology at Fourah Bay College (shortly to become the University of Sierra Leone) at the early age of 35. Here his research on the ecology and genetics of butterflies, moths and snails continued apace and in 1971 he published Tropical Butterflies, one of his more important books. During this period (1967-68) he was also Director of the UNESCO Biology Teaching Project for Africa, based in Ghana.

In 1971 Owen moved to the University of Lund as Professor of Tropical Ecology. During two years in Sweden he continued to publish on tropical ecology but also expanded his interests in temperate and Arctic ecology. In 1973 he was appointed Principal Lecturer in Biology at Oxford Polytechnic, now Oxford Brookes University, where he remained until his retirement earlier this year.

With characteristic vigour, he set about introducing research to a predominantly teaching institution. Almost single-handedly, he built up the reputation of his Department as a popular place to do research. The 22 successful PhD students taught by him over the past 23 years testify to his diligence and skill as a supervisor. He was also much in demand as an external examiner at both undergraduate and research levels.

In 1974 he wrote What is Ecology? The second edition, revised by Jennifer Owen, was an outstanding success and has been translated into five foreign languages. Ten years later his voice became familiar to listeners to the BBC World Service with his broadcasts from Spain on natural history (with John Burton) and his own series What's in a Name?, the latter also published by the BBC as a book. With Peregrine Holidays, he was a frequent guest lecturer and guide on their nature excursions to places such as northern Greece, the Nile Valley, the Seychelles, Belize, Guatemala and the Arctic.

His own prodigious research output continued unabated and embraced yet new fields such as butterfly evolution in the Atlantic Islands, desertification, the management of nature reserves, rabies and the ecological implications of virus research.

Owen's international status as an ecologist was increasingly recognised as several universities and institutions awarded him consultancies and visiting professorships: the University of Massachusetts (1974), the Secretariat for International Ecology (1974), the United Nations University (1977- 79), the University of Bergen (1990-91) and the University of Florida (1991-92).

In this, the year of his untimely death, he was involved in the preparation or publication of no less than 10 papers with various collaborators covering fields as diverse as mimicry and evolution in African butterflies, butterfly migration, industrial melanism in the peppered moth, the ecological genetics of the scarlet tiger moth, genetic diversity in both land snails and marine bivalve molluscs and a biography of the entomologist J.W. Tutt.

He remained active to the end: on the very day of his death, I received a letter from him on the subject of a paper we are writing together, and he continued trapping moths to within three days of his death. He leaves behind him mountains of unpublished records, all meticulously filed or recorded in field notebooks, and extensive insect collections from all continents.

Denis Owen's relatively humble origins and somewhat deficient schooling would have proved an insurmountable barrier to many. And yet his monumental contribution to knowledge demonstrates with startling clarity how natural ability, when combined with inexhaustible energy and drive, can triumph over early disadvantage. He was a tireless and astute observer of minutiae and an immaculate recorder but possibly the greatest of his many talents was his ability, in both speech and writing, to communicate ideas in clear and concise English.

Denis Frank Owen, naturalist, teacher, writer and broadcaster: born London 4 April 1931; Lecturer, Makerere University, Uganda 1962-66; Professor, University of Sierra Leone 1966-71; Professor, University of Lund, Sweden 1971-73; Principal Lecturer, Oxford Brookes University 1973-76; married Jennifer Bak 1958 (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1994), 1994 Clare Shervington; died Oxford 3 October 1996.

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