Tribute to world-renowned zoologist

04 May 2004

Gideon Louw, a former head of UCT's zoology department and the researcher described as having "unmasked" animal survival tactics, died in Vancouver last month, aged 73. He was a zoologist of international stature, and, by all accounts, a modest man who "bore his considerable learning lightly". According to an obituary in the Sunday Times (March 28, 2004), Louw once told friends he sometimes wondered if he wasn't "something of a scientific fraud".

His main research interest focused on ecophysiology - how animals adapt to their environments - especially animals surviving and thriving in some of the hottest areas of the world. It was Louw, for instance, who did ground-breaking work on the springboks in the Karoo. According to journalist Chris Barron, Louw found that the gazelle have very thin skin, useful when being chased by predators, usually cheetah. On the run the springbok's temperature rises quickly in response to heat released from its muscles. Through its thin skin it gets rid of excess heat very quickly. It's this instant ventilation that keeps the buck ahead, increasing its chances of survival.

Louw was born in east London and attended St John's College in Johannesburg where he matriculated in 1947. After a stint in the South African Air Force where he learnt to fly Tiger Moths, he studied at Stellenbosch University, taking a degree in animal science and agronomy, and an MSc at Pretoria University and a doctorate at Cornell in the United States. For his thesis he conducted vital research on the pituitary gland and growth hormones.

He was visiting professor at West Virginia University, professor in the zoology department at Stellenbosch (he was one of the founders of the Progressive Party in this stronghold of Afrikaner nationalism). Louw spent a year at the renowned Babraham Institute of Animal Physiology at Cambridge before returning to UCT as alternating HOD. Louw also enjoyed one-years stints as visiting lecturer at the universities of Arizona and Zurich. In 1987 he was appointed as a special counselor to the president of the Foundation for Research Development in Pretoria.

In 1992 when he left the foundation, he was invited to be a fellow at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin, a rare honour. He used his time there to compose his academic study Why Elephants and Fleas don't sweat a serious work but one with a title that showed Louw's mischievous sense of humour. Violence in South Africa drove him to retire in Canada. He is suvived by his wife, Claire, and three children.

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