‘Stacey’ Skaife FRSSAf: versatile scientist, public intellectual, influential educator, detective fiction author
By Jane Carruthers FRSSAf
Many from an older era of South African scientists bequeathed reflective autobiographies that enrich our understanding of their lives through a personal lens and individual perspective. In the field of environmental conservation and natural history, one charming and interesting example that I have recently re-read is Sidney H. Skaife’s simply entitled A Naturalist Remembers (1963). Clearly written in conversational style, a new generation of readers of this book would be introduced to a man who managed to pack a number of professions into a single lifetime in a context that rewarded inter- and multi-disciplinary endeavours and the successes of a public intellectual in South Africa more than is the case today.
Sidney Harold Skaife (many sources refer to him as ‘Sydney’) was born in London in 1889 and he died at his home in Hout Bay in 1976. Interested in biology from his childhood in England when he captured ‘creepy-crawlies’ in match boxes in order to study them, he immigrated to South Africa in 1913 where he became a biology teacher and later inspector of science education in the Cape, an entomologist of stature, and a university lecturer in this field. He obtained his M.Sc. from Natal University College in 1920 on Bruchinae (seed-weevils) and his 1922 Ph.D. (UCT) focussed on the same group of animals. A founder of the South African Biological Society in 1916, he was its medal winner in 1959 and in 1940 he was President of the Entomological Society of Southern Africa. Elected a Fellow in 1938, he was President of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1950, President of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1948 (medal winner in 1952) and President of the Zoological Society of South Africa in 1960. He was editor of Nature Notes from 1924 to 1931 (fore-runner of popular wild life magazines), founder of the Cape Wildlife Protection and Conservation Society in 1929, Director of the School Broadcasting Service (1935-1945), Board Member of the South African Broadcasting Commission (1948-1951), Chairman of the Fisheries Development Corporation (1945-1951) and for many years a Board member of the South African Museum. He was awarded one of the first Carnegie Grants for study in the USA (1918), and received an Honorary D.Sc. from the University of Natal (1957).
In various capacities he helped to establish three of South Africa’s national parks in the 1930s (Addo Elephant, Bontebok and Mountain Zebra) as well as assisting in the gestation of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve. In addition, he wrote a number of highly regarded popular books on insects and animal life more generally as well as more than 20 scientific papers on these themes, some published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa. His book African Insect Life (1953) ranks in equal significance with field guides such as Austin Roberts’s The Birds of South Africa (1940) and The Mammals of South Africa (1951) and J.L.B. Smith’s The Sea Fishes of Southern Africa (1949). Moreover, Skaife illustrated his book himself with drawings and photographs.
As though that was not a sufficiently full and rewarding life, Skaife also wrote seven detective novels under the pseudonym ‘Hendrik Brand’ (they were very popular translated into Afrikaans) and a number of children’s books. His legacy includes his influence on his daughter, Mary K. (Bunty) Rowan (1920-1986) and his grandson, Andrew Rowan. Bunty Rowan was a microbiologist and ornithologist whom many thought should have been appointed the first director of the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute of African Ornithology, and her son, Andrew Rowan, who has a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford University, was founding editor of the International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems and of Anthrozoos, and is currently President and C.E.O. of Humane Society International and Chief International Officer and Chief Scientific Officer for the Humane Society of the United States as well as President of Board of Directors of the HSUS Wildlife Land Trust.
Rather than summarise here the content of A Naturalist Remembers, I recommend that those interested in this remarkable life obtain a copy and peruse it for themselves and perhaps consult some of Skaife’s books and articles listed at the end. Readers will find more than personal anecdotes of interest (fascinating though some of them are) because, most importantly, it conveys a sense of the history of science – and economic entomology in particular – in South Africa from the 1920s to the 1950s. Skaife weaves the personal – his marriage to pianist Elsie Mary Croft in 1917, building his home, ‘Tierbos’, in the then-remote location of Hout Bay and similar episodes – with the professional and in the latter, he took every opportunity open to him. These include his period of working under entomologists C.P. Lounsbury and C.W. Mally, his time at Cedara Agricultural College, his interactions with Julian Huxley and Lord Reith, observations on the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 and outbreaks of plague and other diseases. In terms of Skaife’s contribution to education, how biology was taught at schools under his watch impacted tremendously on the later growth of the ecological disciplines and a reminder of an educational department’s refusal to discuss evolution is also salutary. Skaife’s involvement in South Africa’s war effort in both the First and Second World Wars is another little-known but remarkable story as his explanation of the impact of the tsetse fly campaign in Zululand in the 1920s. In addition to entomological topics, Skaife’s descriptions of his years as Chairman of the Fisheries Development Corporation and with the SABC, both of which ended with the change of government in 1948 are instructive.
Scientists are familiar with the fact that while some colleagues are effusive in their appreciation of their work and accomplishments, others are more sparing in their praise, or indeed, are critical. Such diverse views beg questions about what exactly is a ‘scientist’ and, moreover, how one later comes to evaluate the life of someone who has an attractive public persona and who, like Skaife, most importantly influenced and inspired generations of teachers and learners and well as what are now referred to as ‘citizen scientists’ as well as fellow professionals. One the one hand Jan Giliomee (2013) describes Skaife as a ‘great naturalist’, and in a rather disparaging comment, U.C.T. zoology professor Alec C. Brown wrote, ‘Whether Stacey Skaife…was a great scientist is open to debate and opinions differed during his life time; he was, however, a naturalist of considerable repute and a great educator … ’. Brown also, apparently, considered it amusing to describe the elderly Skaife’s personal foibles in less than complimentary terms (Carruthers, 2014). On the other hand, in the entry in the Dictionary of South African Biography by one of his disciplinary peers, Bernard Smit, senior government entomologist and in 1960 President of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science (and son of the illustrator of Roberts’s Mammals), refers to him as a ‘brilliant scientist’ (vol V, 1987, p.711).
Recently, Skaife’s contribution to the conservation of the flora of the Western Cape has been highlighted in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa and details can be found in the article by Brian van Wilgen, et al., ‘Ecological research and conservation management in the Cape Floristic Region between 1945 and 2015: History, current understanding and future challenges’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 71 (3), 2016.
Carruthers, J. ‘Preface to “Some Royal but unmemoired Fellows” by A.C. Brown’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 2014. DOI 10.1080/0035919X.2014.882429
Giliomee, J., ‘Entomology in South Africa: Where do we come from, where are we now and where are we going?, South African Journal of Science, 109 (1/2), 2013.
Skaife, S.H., A Naturalist Remembers. Cape Town: Longmans, 1963.
Skaife, S.H., African Insect Life. London etc.: Longmans, 1953.
Smit, B., ‘A further chapter in the history of Entomology in South Africa’, Journal of the Entomological Society of South Africa, 23(1), 1960.
Van Wilgen, B. et al., ‘Ecological research and conservation management in the Cape Floristic Region between 1945 and 2015: History, current understanding and future challenges’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 71 (3), 2016, pp.207-303. doi/pdf/10.1080/0035919X.2016.1225607