was founded over 100 years ago with the sole aim of promoting the study
of all branches of Natural History and continues to do so to this day.
Professor John L Cloudsley-Thompson
“One of the best real Natural Historians”
“the last Titan of the Sahara Desert”
HonFBHS, FWAAS, FRES, FZS, Emeritus Professor of Zoology University of London.
On hearing John had died, BNA President Professor David Bellamy said “Sad news, one of the best real Natural Historians has passed on”.
Sadly our distinguished Vice President John Cloudsley-Thompson died on 4th October 2013 at the age of 92. He was a former British Naturalists’ Association Chairman (1974-83) and a very worthy recipient of the Association’s highest honour for outstanding services to our understanding of natural history, the Peter Scott Memorial Award in 1993. To mark John’s 90th birthday in 2011, the BNA presented John with a special Fellowship Honoris Causa certificate “in recognition of his outstanding lifetime contribution to the understanding of Natural History”.
It was a particular pleasure for me as the present chairman to be able to present this to John with his wife Anne beside him. Anne died just 8 months later aged 96 (during the presentation Anne joked with me that John at 90 was her ‘toy-boy’!). John was a dynamic & enthusiastic field naturalist throughout his life, renowned throughout the world as ‘The Desert Naturalist’, and Anne had shared numerous field trips with John (including a trans-Sahara crossing). When John was Professor of Zoology at the University of Khartoum from 1960-71, Anne formed a Physiotherapy Department at Omdurman Hospital. They complimented each other well, John as naturalist, Anne as artist. John & Anne had 3 sons.
John was born in May 1921 at Murree in India (now Pakistan), was educated at Marlborough and Cambridge and had a very active war, by his 21st birthday being a Tank Commander stationed at Beni Yusef. It was during his time in North Africa that his lifetime passion for desert wildlife began when between actions crews adopted local wild species, including species of Solifugae which they dubbed ‘Jerrymanders’ (camel spiders, wind scorpions and allies). John had bartered for a baby fox with “over-ripe bananas and half a piaster” and his crew amused themselves training it, and it became ‘completely tame’. She ‘scrounged extra bully beef from other tank crews’. One day she strayed into the engine compartment “& the whole squadron was held up until she had been extricated!”
John’s Crusader tank was knocked out during a battle, and his crew were all injured or killed. John had a severe injury to his leg. His leg had paralysis (which remained with him) so he was made a gunnery instructor at Sandhurst, until he ‘wangled’ a medical upgrade so that he was able to return to tanks for the Normandy landings. Subsequently John’s Cromwell tank was hit during the intense battle of Villers Bocage.
After the war John continued his studies at Cambridge where he came across a copy of the British (then BENA) Naturalists’ Association’s journal/magazine ‘Country-side’. John joined the Association and began to write articles for ‘Country-side’ including about desert wildlife and his fascination with desert wildlife remained with him throughout his life, as did his significant support for the BNA. (When John was Chairman of the Association he took me on as editor of ‘Country-side’, beginning my own involvement with the BNA).
In 1945 he had his observations on the behaviour of the common centipede published in Nature. At Cambridge he achieved his MA and PhD, From 1950 to 1960 he became a lecturer in zoology at Kings College, London. He was awarded a DSc by the University of London. In 1960 he returned to live in the arid African landscape as Professor of Zoology at the University of Khartoum and Keeper of the Sudan Natural History Museum. He undertook many expeditions continuing his researches as the best known of desert naturalists. He was awarded an Hon DSc from Khartoum.
When John began his desert studies he was a pioneer, for little field research had been carried out in deserts especially over a long period. His research caused others to follow and develop desert ecology.
John became Professor of Zoology at Birkbeck College, University of London from 1972-86, subsequently Emeritus. He was visiting Professor or Fellow at a number of institutions around the world such as Arizona State University & Kuwait University. He really was truly international in outlook. He became President of the British Arachnological Society (1982-5), British Society for Chronobiology (1985-7) and British Herpetological Society (1991-96).
John is the author of many publications and was author of over 50 books, particularly on the desert environment and the adaptations used by its wildlife of species like spiders and scorpions. He especially observed the effect of temperature, water and diurnal rhythms in desert species. His many titles include ‘The Diversity of Desert Life’, ‘Spiders & Scorpions’, ‘The Desert’, ‘Sahara Desert’, ‘Insects & History’, ‘Camels’, ‘Biological Clocks, their Function in Nature’, ‘Microecology’, ‘Rhythmic Activity in Animal Physiology & Behaviour’, ‘The Temperature & Water Relations of Reptlies’. John published his last major biological book when he was 84 in 2005, ‘Ecology & Behaviour of Mesozoic Reptiles’, and the following year he brought out his book of memoirs of armoured warfare during 1939-45 called ‘Sharpshooter’. He edited the book series ‘Adaption of Desert Organisms’ and was founder/editor (helped by Anne) of the ‘Journal of Arid Environments’. He collaborated with others, like Wilson Lourenco with whom he produced over 45 papers in 20 years on scorpion biology after he retired from Birkbeck. Lourenco noted that John brought ‘refreshing enthusiasm to each new subject’.
His achievements in his fields of study have been recognised by a number of awards including the BNA’s Peter Scott Memorial Award, Royal African Society Medal, JH Grundy Memorial Medal (Royal Army Medical College). When John reached his 80th birthday his ex-students, colleagues and friends published as a celebration ‘Ecology of Desert Environments : A Festschrift for J P Cloudsley-Thompson’ consisting of 28 articles edited by Ishwar Prakash. One of the writers called John “the last Titan of the Sahara Desert”. In 2011 when John reached 90 ‘Euscorpius’, the first publication focussed entirely on scorpion research, produced a special edition ‘Scorpions 2011 : John L Cloudsley-Thompson 90th Birthday Commemorative Volume’. As John was approaching his birthday in 2011 he wrote to me that he wanted to attend BNA events but that he became “rather wobbly & feeble after heart failure in 2008 (when he was 87) so he didn’t get out so much”. However it didn’t dampen his enthusiasm at all.
John’s active interests went beyond deserts and he produced publications on bees, wasps, woodlice, seals & sea lions and others. He collaborated with BNA’s former editor of ‘Country-side’, Dr David Applin on biological periodicities. John wrote the BNA’s popular ‘Guide to Woodlands’ which was published in 1985, which is when John became a Vice President of BNA following 9 years as Chairman.
John was a pioneering desert species specialist, a great naturalist and a delight to know.
Roger Tabor 2013