Over the 106 years of its existence, the Royal Society of South Africa – following the traditions of the Royal Society of London – has elected or invited scientists living outside of the country to certain categories of membership. In 1983 G. Evelyn Hutchinson, the world renowned ecologist, was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London – not an unexpected honour for a world renowned scientist of his stature. Although born and educated in England, Hutchinson had become a citizen of the United States and was thus not eligible for Fellowship. Three years later he was invited to be a Foreign Associate of the Royal Society of South Africa. This was a newly established category, instigated at a time when South Africa’s apartheid policy had rendered the country short of scientific friends abroad and when the academic boycott had shown itself to be relatively effective. Robin Catchpole, General Secretary of the Society, sent a letter to Hutchinson, then retired but still active at Yale University. In inviting him to accept the officer, Catchpole wrote: ‘… it is noted that the Society, founded in 1877 and now with a distinguished membership of nearly 90 Fellows and 300 Members, wishes to extend its links to other countries so as to provide a stronger feeling of community in the common causes of the advancement of science, both for scientists here and those overseas wishing to have greater knowledge of progress in this country. The Foreign Associateship has been established recently with this aim in view. The Foreign Associates are persons chosen for their former connections with South African science and who have a current interest in science here and in its advancement … The Society’s Council has taken note of your distinguished career which started in South Africa in the Zoology Department of the University of the Witwatersrand and the major contribution you have made to the development of hydrobiology in this country. Council believes you might be, upon whatever occasion may seem appropriate, a distinguished and valuable friend of South African Science’.

The Zoology Department at Wits gathered beneath a photograph of Hutchinson on the occasion of the opening in 1977 of the G.E. Hutchinson Research Laboratory. From left to right: Geoff Goldin, Barry Fabian, Hugh Paterson, Alan Thornley, Shirley Hanrahan, Neville Passmore, Robin Crewe and Miles Markus

The Zoology Department at Wits gathered beneath a photograph of Hutchinson on the occasion of the opening in 1977 of the G.E. Hutchinson Research Laboratory.
From left to right: Geoff Goldin, Barry Fabian, Hugh Paterson, Alan Thornley, Muriel Hyslop, Neville Passmore, Robin Crewe and Miles Markus

The Royal Society of South Africa might have been uncertain of Hutchinson’s reaction to this audacious invitation for three reasons. First, throughout his life and even when he was in South Africa in the 1920s, Hutchinson had fiercely and vociferously opposed racism of any kind and a connection with the country might well not have been tempting to him, particularly during a decade of intense political violence and fierce repression of all liberation movements. Second, Hutchinson was then married to his third, and much younger, wife, Anne Twitty Goldsby, a black woman who, under South African legislation at that time, would not have been allowed into the country. Third, ‘the distinguished career which started in South Africa in the Zoology Department of the University of the Witwatersrand’ had ended as far as Wits was concerned when Hutchinson was fired from his position as Senior Lecturer by Head of Department, Professor Harold B. Fantham, an eminent international parasitologist, Dean of the Wits Faculty of Science in 1924 and 1925, twice Vice-President of the Royal Society of South Africa, President of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, and recipient of many other honours.

However, Hutchinson accepted the invitation, graciously writing in July 1986 ‘… I am delighted to accept this invitation, particularly at a time when political and social barriers that sometimes threaten to divide us cry out for the use, as in science, of intelligence and good will in all aspects of human behaviour. I was also especially happy to see my early work on your most fascinating waters mentioned as an appropriate reason for my election. This work and its extension to other semi-arid regions has continued to be a source of great satisfaction to me. ’

By the 1980s, then well advanced in age (he was born in 1903), Hutchinson was a world acclaimed ecologist and one of the most famous figures of 20th century science, even being referred to as a ‘second Darwin’. He has been described as the major catalyst for the invention of modern ecology – indeed its ‘father’ – of easing the intellectual tension in ecology by merging the metrological and the holological perspectives, and responsible for incorporating mathematics and other disciplines into ecology. His pushing of ecology ‘into the front ranks of the hard sciences’ through a biogeochemical approach has been argued to have been one of his lasting legacies. In the course of his career he produced some 40 doctoral students and wrote around 200 important scientific papers. Among his students were giants such as Raymond Lindeman, Howard Odum and Robert MacArthur.  He was also one of the first scientists to become involved in the environmental conservation movement, writing about the potentially detrimental effect of greenhouse gases on climate. In addition, he was extremely – almost professionally – knowledgeable about literature (he was Rebecca West’s literary executor), music, art and architecture.

Honours student Ishvara Puri Singh at work on a puffadder in the Hutchinson Lab at Wits, June 2014. Singh’s research project investigates micro-ornamentation on the scales of South African snakes.

Honours student Ishvara Puri Singh at work on a puffadder in the Hutchinson Lab at Wits, June 2014. Singh’s research project investigates micro-ornamentation on the scales of South African snakes.

Despite his enormous international stature, Hutchinson’s name is not well established in the canon of South Africa’s scientific contributors and it was for this reason that I embarked on some research into his South African career a few years ago. This culminated in an article published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa in 2011 to which readers interested in more information than is contained in this brief essay are referred.

In fact, some of the bridges between Hutchinson and South Africa had been mended in 1977 almost a decade before Catchpole’s invitation. As is often the case, this happened serendipitously. In 1971, Hugh Paterson, an evolutionary biologist with an interest in the concept of species and a member of the Department of Zoology at Wits, was paging through a newly arrived special issue of Limnology and Oceanography dedicated to G. Evelyn Hutchinson, who had retired that year as Sterling Professor of Zoology at Yale University. The caption to Figure 4 caught Paterson’s eye – a photograph of a young Hutchinson. It read simply: ‘In South Africa, 1928’. Paterson was intrigued. Having – with some difficulty – discovered the connection between his University and Hutchinson, Paterson determined to mark in some way the Wits career of ‘the most revered living ecologist’ and to try to correct the wrong perpetrated nearly 50 years before. In 1977, the chance came with the conversion of the Zoology Department’s museum into a postgraduate laboratory. Paterson, by then Head of the Department of Zoology, wrote to Hutchinson on 18 February 1977: ‘When I arrived in this Department I set about replanning it and reorganising the laboratories. Our Evolutionary Biology Laboratory is now approaching completion. It is a very beautiful lab., situated in the old Museum Room. I am writing to ask you if you would allow us to name it, in your honour, the “G. Evelyn Hutchinson Research Laboratory”. In this way we would be able to commemorate your early connection with the Department, and, I hope, make up, to some extent, for your early unhappy experience with Fantham. Above all, it would be an inspiration for our young evolutionary biologists. I hope very much that you will permit this’. Again generous and gracious, and clearly holding no long-standing grudge against Wits University, Hutchinson was delighted with this recognition. He replied to Paterson on 4 March 1977: ‘Thank you very much for your letter. I do not think I have ever received one that has pleased me more. In spite of unhappy incidents, I have a deep affection for your department and am extremely touched to be commemorated in it.’ Paterson’s letter to Hutchinson was followed by one from Professor G.R. Bozzoli, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Wits, to which the recipient replied on 1 April 1977, ‘I am deeply touched by this action and thank all of you very much indeed … My career with you was by no means all painful, in fact it played an immense part in my intellectual development. I treasure many happy memories of the Hoernlés, Raymond Dart, the Mosses and Edna Janisch’. Hutchinson was not able to attend the opening of the laboratory, but when he received photographs of that event, he responded, ‘I am immensely pleased and proud with what you have done for me. It has given great pleasure to my wife and our friends here’. To this day, the laboratory remains named after him, but it is perhaps doubtful that the students who make use of it are aware of the facts of the connection among Hutchinson, Wits, the stirrings of South Africa’s scientific limnology and the emergence of ecology as a respected academic discipline with some of its roots in our country.

After he had been suspended from his teaching duties by Fantham in 1926, Hutchinson and his wife, Grace Evelyn Pickford (1902-1986), were encouraged by Lancelot T. Hogben, an evolutionary biologist then Professor of Zoology at the University of Cape Town, to deepen their growing knowledge of South African limnology by observing, sampling and identifying life in many ponds, lakes and other water bodies. Once the ties with Wits were finally severed in 1928 the couple left for Yale University, where Hutchinson remained for what was to be a long and illustrious career. As mentioned above, Hutchinson later described this South African interlude as having played ‘an immense part’ in his intellectual development, and the work he did here is reflected in his four-volume A Treatise on Limnology, published between 1957 and 1993.

In his memoir, Kindly Fruits of the Earth (1979), Hutchinson recollected of South Africa that ‘both the universities that I knew, Cape Town and the Witwatersrand, had liberal and humane faculties. They still appear to be firmly committed to academic freedom, however difficult such a commitment may have become today.’ No doubt his appreciation for their struggle in that regard played a part in Hutchinson’s enthusiasm for the recognition that came his way through naming of the laboratory after him and for his acceptance of the Foreign Associateship of the Royal Society of South Africa.


For further information and source references see:

Carruthers, J., ‘G. Evelyn Hutchinson in South Africa, 1926 to 1928: “An immense part in my intellectual development”’. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 66(2) (2011), pp.87-104.

Slack, N.G., G. Evelyn Hutchinson and the Invention of Modern Ecology. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010.


I am grateful for assistance from Norman Owen-Smith, Graham Alexander, Shirley Hanrahan and the students who currently use the Hutchinson Laboratory at Wits.