Famed Bay herpetologist hailed
Late Bayworld reptile researcher Bill Branch had ‘magical way’ of helping those he taught
A man for all seasons who had a magical way of encouraging you to become better in whatever you did.
This is the way friends and family have described world-renowned former Bayworld reptile researcher Prof Bill Branch – one of the giants of African herpetology – who has died after a year-long battle with motor neuron disease.
Branch, 72, spearheaded work in the early 1980s to put South Africa on the herpetological map and was renowned for his 1988 guide, known in the field as “Uncle Bill’s bible”, that helped celebrate the reptiles of Southern Africa for ordinary members of the public.
During his 32 years with the Port Elizabeth Museum, later Bayworld, and over the following seven years, he worked in more than 20 African countries, authored or co-authored over 600 publications and described over 50 species new to science.
Towards the end of his life he was part of a team that was documenting the reptiles of remote, formerly war-ravaged zones in Angola.
Friends, colleagues and family paid tribute this week to his knack for inspiring students, his dry humour and “his intimate understanding of the intricacies of natural history, the environment and the interconnected webs of life”.
William Roy Branch was born in the bomb-blasted, down-trodden east end of London after World War 2, but moved with his parents when he was still a youngster to live in Crawley, a model country village in West Sussex, developed by the British government, where he first developed an appreciation of the outdoors.
Having finished school he won a bursary offered to children from disadvantaged families and enrolled at the University of Southampton to study molecular biology.
In 1971, having completed his PhD, he took up an appointment in Pretoria, where he began work at the life sciences division of the South African Atomic Energy Board, researching liver cancer.
He later returned to England but had become smitten with South Africa and in particular its reptile diversity and, when he heard of a vacancy opening up at the then Port Elizabeth Museum for curator of herpetology, he applied and was accepted.
He turned his department at the museum into a world-class repository and focus of research for reptiles and amphibians and, although he officially retired in 2011, he continued as curator emeritus at Bayworld and as a research associate at Nelson Mandela University.
Incumbent Bayworld herpetologist Dr Werner Conradie said on Thursday three species had been named after Branch – a rain frog from Namaqualand, a gecko from the Swartberg in the Western Cape and a lizard from Malawi – and there were others pending.
Branch had been a mentor and friend to many Bayworld staff, he said.
“He had a magical way of saying the right thing so you would become better in whatever it was you were doing.
“He was the most knowledgeable person about everything from reptiles to plants, birds, mammals, geology and more. He was always happy to share and to plant a seed.”
Great friend and medical doctor Colin Tilbury said Branch had been an avid fisherman and had loved the camping trips that were an integral part of his work.
“Driven by a boundless energy and an amazing zest for life, Bill was an inspirational force to everyone who had the privilege to know or work with him. With his huge intellect and capacity for sharing, he attracted people to him.”
Branch served on specialist committees of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and was invited by the Smithsonian Institute to survey proposed new national parks in Gabon. In the last decade after his retirement he worked as a specialist guide for more than 60 National Geographic touring parties.
Among the tributes posted on Facebook by researchers from the US, Australia and various parts of Africa, Pedro vaz Pinto, of Angola, said Branch was “persistent, meticulous, humble and ethically spotless. I couldn’t find a better model.”
Branch’s wife Donvé said her husband had been a complex and versatile man.
“I will miss his wonderful, dry humour. He was passionate about family, loved collecting art and played the guitar. He was a man of many seasons.”
Branch leaves his wife, three sons and five grandchildren.