Pioneering scientist and environmentalist dies

26 October 2004


With the death of John Grindley on October 15, a long association between his family and UCT has ended. His father, the late Dr Eric Grindley, came to South Africa in 1923 from Bristol University to join the physics department as a lecturer when the university was known as the South African College. His mother, Mrytle, was one of the early female botanists to be trained at UCT.

Grindley's career in science started with his decision to study zoology at UCT. He was an outstanding student and during his undergraduate years he was awarded the class medal twice and graduated in 1956 with distinction. Nine years later, after initial research at Southampton University (1959/60), he was awarded his PhD at UCT for pioneering research on the zoogeography of plankton. Throughout his years of study and research at UCT he had a close working relationship with and high regard for the late Professor John Day, head of the zoology department.

He joined the South African Museum in 1960 as deputy director and curator of the invertebrates section and worked there until 1967 when he was appointed director of the Port Elizabeth Museum, a position he held with distinction until 1975, rebuilding the ailing institution into a thriving research and public education facility. During this time he continued work on plankton and was an active participant in the South African Antarctic research programme, doing research in the seas around Antarctica, Marion and Prince Edward Islands. He was appointed scientific coordinator of the Sancor Antarctic research programme.

He was also at the forefront of the emerging environmental movement and worked tirelessly for the establishment of marine reserves around the South African coastline. In 1975 he returned to UCT and was offered an associate professorship in the new School of Environmental Studies, where he and Professor Richard Fuggle laid the foundations of this new department. Students remember him for his incredibly wide knowledge of all aspects of the natural environment, and commitment to its conservation. Grindley was a true naturalist, with interests that extended way beyond his professional involvement in zoology and marine biology.

As a student he worked with Nico Tinbergen on bird behaviour and retained a keen interest in birds all his life. He was also a botanist with a special love of fynbos and trees and was an active member of the Conchology Society. His most abiding passion however, was for mountains and throughout his life he spent as much time as possible rock climbing, hiking and exploring mountain areas. This love of mountains took him on climbing expeditions throughout Africa, the UK, the United States and South America.

He was an active member and past president of the university mountain club for many years, and was part of an early UCT expedition to the then largely unknown Ruwenzori mountains in Uganda. He also had a lively and informed interest in art and was an acomplished painter himself. His extensive library reflected his wide interests, and collegues at UCT will remember his office with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Ill health forced him to resign his position at UCT in 1989.

A memorial service will be held for him at the Kirstenbosch Stone Cottage, Kirstenbosch Drive, Newlands, on Wednesday, October 27 at 16h00. Friends and colleagues are warmly invited to the short service and to join his family in drinking a glass of wine to his memory. - Shirley Grindley

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