A tribute to Professor Lord Robert May (1936-2020)

Lord May of Oxford

Professor Lord Robert May of Oxford (1936-2020)

The members of the Department of Zoology deeply regret the passing of Professor Lord May of Oxford on April 28 2020. Bob - as he was known to all - joined the Department of Zoology as a Royal Society Research Professor in 1988. During his time here, he collaborated with, and was a close friend to, many members of the department. He continued to work in the department until late 2016 when declining health no longer made this possible. 

Bob was a towering figure in science, who made extraordinarily influential contributions which changed entire fields in population, community, and ecosystem ecology, and in mathematical biology and epidemiology. In addition, he made significant advances in theoretical physics, mathematics, and economics. His scientific contributions are matched by his distinguished record of service in scientific leadership and policy. Between 1995 and 2000 he was the Chief Scientific Advisor to the government, and between 2000 and 2005 he was President of the Royal Society. He received numerous accolades for his research and scientific leadership, including FRS (1979), Foreign Member of the National Academy of Sciences (1992), Knight Bachelor (1996), The Crafoord Prize (awarded in fields not recognised by the Nobel Prizes, 1996) Life Peer (2001), and the Order of Merit (2002).

Bob was also a major influence on everyone whose lives he touched. Below are some personal tributes from members of the Zoology Department, past and present, which show how much we valued his professional and personal involvement in our lives. Bob will be greatly missed.

Lynne Bradley (Bob's PA): It is hard to think of a world without Bob.  With his vast list of scientific achievements, he was an exceptional person in so many ways, and who became an extremely important part of my life.  I have known Bob since I started in Zoology back in 1993, and had the privilege of working very closely with him, as his assistant, for 7 years prior to him leaving the department in late 2016.  Working with Bob was one of the most amazing and interesting experiences of my working life; there was never a dull moment and he always made me feel we were a team.  Bob had a reputation for never being afraid to speak his mind, sometimes with a very colourful vocabulary, but the person I knew was extremely honest, kind, supportive and fiercely loyal; who cared passionately about science as well as people; and who always had time for you, whoever you were! I have many wonderful, fond and special memories, which I will always treasure.  I will always miss you Bob!

Judith May (Bob's wife):I think there was a symbiotic relationship - Bob was good for the Department, and the Department was good for him.  I think it gave him a "base of operations" for all his research and later appointments, and played a significant part in his success.

John Krebs (Emeritus Professor of Zoology): Bob was a loyal and very competitive friend.  For nearly two decades, Bob and I used do a 5 mile run almost every Sunday morning at Blenheim Park.  We finished by running out of the Park along the main driveway and into Woodstock.  As we approached this point, we would break into a last half mile sprint to get to the end first.  Bob often reminded me of one of his favourite country and western songs with the refrain “only the hard yards get you home”.  History does not record which of us “won” more often.

Annabel Halfhead (PA in the Department): I knew Bob for a couple of years before he left in 2016, so I did not have the opportunity to get to know him well, but I always found him to be kind and supportive towards administrative staff. He was passionate about his work and incredibly hard-working and expected the same from his colleagues. Woe betide me if I was ever caught taking up his assistant Lynne’s valuable time stopping to have a chat, which as a newcomer to the vast Tinbergen building in my early days I was prone to doing. Such encounters were soon cut short by Bob’s hovering presence at Lynne’s door as a sign that my time chatting to Lynne was up!”

Ashleigh Griffin (Professor of Evolutionary Biology): I arrived in the department in the summer of 2008, and sat in an office on the corner of the EGI corridor, along from Bob’s office. First sighting was  a flash of blue, like a kingfisher in his startling iridescent tracksuit, running past my office door. He had a vital energy that crackled around him which made an impression on me before I even knew who he was. He would have been well into his 70s by then but was in his track suit more often than not, on his way to play real tennis, or to run round University Parks. Over the years we became occasional coffee-pals - taking a break in Darwin canteen together or over lunch. For many young people in the department, like me, Bob was a valuable source of "inside information” on bewildering topics such as - the competence level of the science minister, the politics and personalities of the research councils... always with a hint of mischief and good humour.

He was irreverent and fun, never aloof or patronising - as far from the stereotypical Oxford Prof as you can imagine - an Aussie for sure. For years, we held onto a piece of paper tablecloth from a department Christmas party, covered in scores scrawled in pen, from a game we invented called “Beat the Lord”, which involved racing Bob round the table among much rowdy cheering. I’d like to say he won, I dont think he did, but I do remember him trying really, really hard! It is with great sadness that I have heard of his declining health over recent years, for one so full of life not so very long ago, and feel very priviliged to have had the pleasure of his company as a colleague. 

Juliano Morimoto (former DPhil student): Bob mentored me during my PhD with invaluable advice and unconditional support for my career development. His legacy will last for generations thanks to the impact that he had in many people's personal and professional lives. My time with Bob changed my life. Thank you very much for everything, Bob.

Ben Sheldon (Luc Hoffmann chair in field ornithology, Joint Head of Department): I joined Zoology in 2000. Bob had just stopped being Chief Science Advisor and become President of the Royal Society; as a rather timid URF, new to Oxford, I can’t pretend I wasn’t a little over-awed by him when I first arrived here. For many years my office was close enough to Bob’s that, even through closed doors, I could hear when he was dictating responses to letters and emails. The tone and pace of his dictation was very characteristic, as well as its volume, even if I couldn’t quite make out the words. What I could tell was that Bob seemed simply to speak in fully-formed paragraphs, with hardly any back-tracking, and that he seemed to be able to finish one letter, and with hardly a pause for breath, move onto the next. All of this rather reinforced the impression of being in close proximity to someone making key decisions at the heart of a great scientific network. As far as I knew, Bob had no idea what I did, or who I was; after all, why should he? One day Bob burst into my office in a state of great excitement. My initial alarm dissipated immediately when it became clear why. “Ben,” said Bob, “I’ve just seen the most amazing bird outside my window! Blue above, black throat, the most amazing bright yellow underneath! What could it be?!” At time, the flat roof of the Tinbergen Building supported temporary puddles that housed communities of invertebrates that were favoured foraging sites for the small number of wintering Grey Wagtails, and I had enjoyed watching them feed right outside my window many times, and was able to tell him about this and the little ecological communities in the puddles on the roof. Until that day I’d not known Bob as someone who could lift his eyes from weighty 'matters of state' in science to appreciate a small feature of the natural environment outside his window, but I am very glad that I did.

Chris Dye (Visiting Professor of Zoology): Many stories that could be recalled, here’s one on May’s view of natural history. Running with a Silwood Park group in Windsor Great Park, circa 1983. May starts choking while running. Hassell: have you inhaled an insect Bob? May: yes, but I don’t know if it was N(t) or P(t).

Nina Alphey (Research Associate): A reminiscence from me, illustrating what a nice, generous man Bob was. Years ago, when that spur of Tinbergen D-level was having to be vacated so that the electrics could be re-wired, instead of packing up everything to move to his temporary room, Bob sorted through his belongings.  He sent boxes of important records to the Royal Society for their archives I believe, and he laid out shelves and shelves of text books and invited DPhil students and early postdocs to come and help themselves from those.  When I went along, Bob was there, and although I offered to come back later, he insisted on recommending a few books specifically for me.  I still have them. 

Peter Holland (Linacre Professor of Zoology): When I first joined the Department as a Departmental Lecturer, I was asked who I would like as a mentor. I said Bob May, not expecting him to agree. But he did – and I appreciated that he took the task seriously. His main advice? Set aside time in the day to deal with correspondence, but don’t let minor things get in the way of what you consider to most important.

Clive Hambler (Lecturer in Biological and Human Sciences): I had a very long and loud argument with Bob one coffee break in Darwin's, surrounded as usual by people interested in his views.  I'd provoked him by saying the tutorial system was very demanding of teachers, but he maintained the teaching load was much harder at places like Princeton. The next day he walked past and remarked 'I absolutely disagree with everything you said, but I'll give you one thing for the tutorial system: it produces people who can really argue their case'. He subsequently described the value of universities as being 'infested with the irreverent young'. I'd like to think he included me! He was generally one to support the underdog, and respectful of challenges to the status quo - even if unconvinced.

David Macdonald (Professor of Wildlife Conservation): Whether on a long conversational walk, or shirtless during a swelteringly hot plenary talk, or while demolishing an argument, or when offering kindly advice or encouraging praise with unexpected gentility, or (and I remember the nerve-wracking fun of partnering him in a Departmental debate) competing to win, Bob was always memorable, always remarkable, and a privilege to know.

E.J. Milner-Gulland (Tasso Leventis Professor of Biodiversity): Bob was the external examiner for my PhD thesis, who set my nerves at ease at the beginning by declaring that he'd only read two-thirds of the thesis (enough to convince him the thesis was good enough), and then spending much of the rest of the viva expressing scepticism about the utility of Traditional Chinese Medicine. When I joined New College as a Junior Research Fellow, he was kind enough to give me a home in his group even though I didn't have a Departmental attachment, and we had regular chats in which he always had something insightful to say about my research.

All us junior researchers called him "Uncle Bob" - reflecting his kindliness but also our awe of his sharp intellect. Seeing him demolish an argument which he felt was spurious was quite a spectacle, but he was always supportive of us and helped many people, including me, to the next steps of our career. He also always made sure to greet you in the corridor; maybe a small thing but much appreciated. 

Andy Gosler (Associate Professor in Applied Ethnobiology and Conservation): In 1990 another young research ornithologist and I applied to the Royal Society for grants to get us to New Zealand for the International Ornithological Congress. We needed support from an FRS. In trepidation we asked Bob. “I’d be delighted” he said. We got to NZ. That was Bob.

Holly Kirk (former DPhil student): He was also a genuinely kind and friendly person, who always took the time to say hello to students when passing or check how you were doing if you ended up taking the same lift. These aspects of a great person's legacy can often get missed. So sad to hear of his passing.

Michelle Taylor (fomer post-doctoral researcher): Absolutely tragic. Loss of a legend. He often just joined your coffee table in Darwin’s and chatted science (giving us our “wow it’s THE Bob May” moment). His picture looked over us as we left Tinbergone. Surely I’m not the only one to have thought ‘what would Bob do?’ at least once.

Arjun Gopalaswamy (former DPhil student): I was one of those incredibly lucky students to have had Sir Bob May as my internal examiner during my D.Phil. Those conversations over coffee were so stimulating that even now, when I work on something, my head clears up when I envision a conversation with him. A true giant!