Lives of the fellows

Thomas Richard Edmund (Sir) Southwood

b.20 June 1931 d.26 October 2005
Kt(1984) FRS(1977) BSc Lond(1952) PhD(1955) DSc(1963) FIBiol(1968) MA(1979) Hon DSc Griffith(1983) Hon Doc Lund(1986) Hon ScD East Anglia(1987) DSc Oxon(1987) Hon DSc McGill(1988) Hon DSc Warwick(1989) Hon FRCP(1991) Hon LLD Lond(1991) Hon DSc Liverp(1992) Hon LLD Oxford Brookes(1993) Hon LLD Bristol(1994) Hon DSc Durham(1994) Hon DSc Sussex(1994) Hon DSc Victoria(1994) Hon FRCR(1995) FMedSci

Sir Richard Southwood was one of the leading ecologists and zoologists of his generation and, because of his outstanding chairmanship of many important government inquiries, played a critical role in many aspects of public health in the latter half of the twentieth century. In addition, his brilliance as a university administrator enabled him to establish departments of international excellence, both at Imperial College, London, and the University of Oxford.

Southwood was born at Northfleet, Gravesend, Kent, and educated at Gravesend Grammar School and at Imperial College, London, where he graduated in 1952 with first class honours in zoology. He developed an early interest in natural history, based on the observation of plants and creatures around his childhood home, and published his first research paper at the age of 16 in the Entomologist’s Monthly Magazine. While at school, and later during university vacations, he spent time as a voluntary worker in the entomology department at Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire. He returned there in October 1952 with an Agricultural Research Council scholarship as a full-time research student, under the supervision of C B Williams, though working sometimes under the supervision of C G Johnson. He completed his thesis on heteroptera in 1955, after which he moved to Imperial College, Silwood Park, to work on fruitfly ecology.

Southwood’s early research dealt mainly with methods for the control of insects that are pests, either because they devour crops or transmit disease. However, this led to a much broader research programme on the life history and 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. His books include Ecological methods (London, Methuen and Co., 1966), Insects on plants: community patterns and mechanisms (with D R Strong and J H Lawton, Oxford, Blackwell Scientific, 1984) and Radiation and health (edited with R R Jones, Chichester, Wiley, c.1987). His extensive contributions to his field were recognised by the Linnean Society (Linnean medal) and the Zoology society (scientific medal), as well as his election to the Royal Society and many honorary degrees.

Southwood’s subsequent career at Imperial College advanced rapidly through lecturer, to reader and professor and in 1967 he succeeded O W Richards as head of the department of zoology and applied entomology, also serving as director of Silwood Park. Under his guidance Silwood Park developed into one of the world’s greatest centres for ecological research. And, as pointed out by Robert May in his Independent obituary, today’s international entomological congresses usually include half the entomologists from Africa, all trained by Southwood.

In 1979 Southwood moved to the Linacre chair of zoology at Oxford University with a fellowship at Merton College. He spent the rest of his career in Oxford, becoming vice-chancellor from 1989 to 1993, after which he returned to the zoology department as professor, and later, emeritus professor. As at Imperial College, his outstanding leadership led to the development of an internationally famous department in Oxford that, at one time, housed four of the 18 Royal Society research professors, including Bill Hamilton, the most important evolutionary biologist of his generation, lured back from the United States by Southwood’s influence. During his period as vice-chancellor he did much to reform its University Press as chairman of its delegates, and was a major supporter of the medical school during its period of major development.

Southwood’s public service was equally important. He served as chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution from 1981 to 1986. Among the major reports published during his chairmanship, Lead in the environment (HMSO, 1983) was particularly influential. In 1985 he was appointed chairman of the National Radiological Protection Board and later chaired an international conference on biological effects of ionising radiation organised by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace International. He also played a major role in the Surface Water Acidification Programme, conducted by the Norwegian and Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society, set up to investigate claims that sulphur emissions (acid rain) emitted by UK industry were adversely affecting fish in Scandinavian waters. Later, he chaired the Working Party on Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy under the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health and Social Security. The party made recommendations in 1988 and 1989, and finally reported in 1989. In 1995 Southwood became co-chairman of the Round Table on Sustainable Development.

Despite his eminence, Southwood was a modest man with a delightfully warm personality. Undoubtedly much of his success stemmed from his interest in people and his willingness to talk and listen to those at any level, from first year undergraduates to the good and the great. He was completely lacking in pomposity and did much to humanise the ancient administrative structure at Oxford University. Right to the end he insisted on giving the first year undergraduate introductory lectures. Shortly before he died these lectures were published in a delightful book, The story of life, a work which sums up much of his life work, is wonderfully lucid, and offers the general reader a remarkable birds-eye picture of the evolution of Southwood’s field. It provides a fitting memory to a very remarkable man. He is survived by his wife, Alison, whom he married in 1955, and two sons.

Sir David Weatherall

[The Daily Telegraph 4 November 2005; The Independent 9 November 2005]

(Volume XII, page web)

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