The Port Elizabeth Museum has taken a winding journey using temporary accommodation until it was relocated to purpose-built facility was constructed. This was Bayworld in Humewood. Instrumental in this final relocation was one of their most noteworthy directors, Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan. Through his endeavours, Bayworld as it is now called, is a scientific repository of the local natural history – birds, mammals, fossils, shells and relics of the early inhabitants of our hinterland. As the Herald in a tribute to Dr Geoff McLachlan put it: “He was internationally renowned as an ornithologist, a respected natural scientist and an imaginative museum director.”
This blog celebrates the life of this outstanding person. This blog has largely been based upon an online obituary.
Main picture: Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan
History of the Museum
The first museum to open its doors in Port Elizabeth was in 1856, 36 years after the town’s founding, when a diminutive room in the Town Hall was allocated for its use in this manner. The fact that a Museum was established in Port Elizabeth so early in its history is indicative of a town that would spare no effort in establishing a museum in spite of the town’s diminutive size. It is a tribute to the measure of its inhabitants.
Geoff was educated at Micklefield, Rondebosch (and many years later gave the address on the occasion of the school’s 50th anniversary), and then at the Diocesan College (Bishops) in Rondebosch, matriculating in the First Class in 1940. At Bishops he was a Senior in Gray House and a member of the Ten Club, Democritus Society and Philharmonic Society, winning a Music Prize for Piano Playing and won the Cadet Corps competition for the best drummer in the Corps Band. He was ‘a sensitive and sympathetic accompanist’ at the School Concert in September 1940. He was also always passionate about nature and wildlife and in March 1940 he presented a paper at the Democritus Society on ‘South African Ophidia and their venoms’. From school, he went to the University of Cape Town
Like many other youths of that era, his studies were interrupted by three years’ service in the South African Air Force, where he trained as a pilot. His abilities in this field were such that he was appointed as a flying instructor at No 25 Air School at Standerton in the then Transvaal, which he said had also given him a chance to study nature on the Highveld. After the war, he completed his studies in Zoology and Geology at the University of Cape Town and obtained the degree of MSc.
Geoff then went to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1952 with a PhD in Geology. From there, he went to Oxford, where for the next two years he was Departmental Demonstrator of petrology and mineralogy in the Department of Geology and was given the right to dine at High Table at Jesus College, Oxford.
Port Elizabeth Museum and Snake Park
In 1954, Geoff returned to South Africa to become Director of the Port Elizabeth Museum and Snake Park, subsequently supervising the establishment of the new Museum, Snake Park and Oceanarium on the Port Elizabeth seafront at Humewood — it was his vision to have the existing snake park and oceanarium, which would generate finance for the museum, enabling the employment of more staff and construction of up-to-date exhibits.
Long before dinosaurs became popular, Geoff organised that a very large semi-circular room was constructed in the front of the new Museum building for the display of a Brontosaurus, the dimensions of which were calculated from a fossilised thighbone which he collected, together with many lesser bones in the Sundays River near Kirkwood. Birds, or rather their ancestors, had to feature, so a pterodactyl was constructed flying beside the Brontosaurus. This exhibit became well known and continued to attract visitors until it was dismantled in 1992
As soon as he arrived in Port Elizabeth, Geoff became active in the local bird club, and was particularly interested in the young, for whom he would organise day outings and, on occasion, camping weekends. A few people who enjoyed his tuition on these outings have said ‘we learnt about nature not from a dry book but as it is, and it was always fun’. In 1956, Dr Cecily Niven assisted in getting a short-term post for Richard Liversidge, who joined the Port Elizabeth Museum and Snake Park staff as ornithologist. Geoff, Dr Niven and Mr JP Niven were the Organising Committee for the First Pan African Congress held in Livingstone, Zambia, from 15–19 July 1957. Delegates came not only from Africa but from many other parts of the world, and important contacts were made. Several eminent ornithologists, including Dr James Chapin of Congo Peacock fame, Dr Reay Smithers from the then National Museum of Rhodesia, Prof Berlioz from the Natural History Museum in Paris, and Dr Charles Sibley, Director of the Peabody Museum at Yale University, visited Port Elizabeth, giving lectures and providing stimulation.
It was a busy time for ornithologists, and apart from outings and their museum duties, Geoff and Richard assisted June Stannard, who had begun recording bird calls, with her fieldwork. In the 1950s, the Trustees of the Bird Book Fund (later named the John Voelcker Bird Book Fund) realised that a revision of the book on the birds of South Africa written by Dr Austin Roberts and published in 1940 was almost essential. The Trustees accepted a proposal from Geoff and Richard Liversidge to undertake the first revision, published in 1957, after three years of work. The aim of the revised edition was to collate all the information generated by Dr Roberts’ book and also to include that obtained from other ornithologists. The book was to continue to be named ‘Birds of South Africa’ but it was Geoff who requested that it be named ‘Roberts’ Birds of South Africa’, as he described it a more ‘friendly’ title. Subsequent revisions of the book have been named ‘Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa’. It was the editors’ wish that the book would always be kept up to date and thereby perpetuate the name of Austin Roberts. In the editors’ preface to the revised edition, Geoff commented that only then had they begun to appreciate the immense value of Dr Roberts’ work. Geoff and Richard were responsible for revising the third and fourth editions, and according to Bob Brain, author of ‘Austin Roberts. A lifelong devotion to South Africa’s birds and beasts’, all the revisions were an unprecedented success. Geoff and Richard produced all their revisions on a voluntary basis and all profits accrued to the John Voelker Bird Book Fund, enabling the Trustees to commission subsequent editors on a full-time basis and to be able to subsidise specific publications. For their labours, Geoff was given a good pair of binoculars and Richard an electric typewriter.
The early years of Bird Ringing
After Dr Hugh Ashton retired his position in 1956, Dr Geoffrey Roy McLachlan took over the reins of SAFRING. After an initial trial period, where the treasurer, Mr Heard, and Dr McLachlan worked through correspondence, the whole scheme was relocated to Port Elizabeth. Dr McLachlan had his work cut out for him, as several of problems arose with the growing bird ringing dataset. Some of these problems included data storage, data submissions and costs of bird ringing. One of the drastic moves he made to improve data submissions, was to drive across the country visiting all bird ringing hotspots to help ringers in person. During his time as coordinator, he authored eight bird ringing reports, as well as many papers, and a ten year summary of bird ringing. He is also known for the first revisions of the well-known book, Roberts’ Birds of South Africa (2nd, 3rd and 4th editions).
Other interests intrude
By the mid-1960s, Geoff had increased his interest in other animals, particularly reptiles, and in 1966 he and his family moved to Kraaifontein near Cape Town to start the Tygerberg Zoo, with which he was involved until 1975, when he joined the South African Museum in Cape Town as Herpetologist. Collecting trips to the north-western (Northern) Cape and the Namib Desert followed, together with mentoring of young herpetologists — le Fras Mouton recalls that ‘Geoff played an important role in my early career as an herpetologist, and that is why I named Cordylus mclachlani after him’ (Mouton, 1986, South African Journal of Zoology 21: 319–324). Aaron Bauer notes that Geoff helped him during a first research trip to South Africa. Geoff kept up his interests in birds and was made an Honorary Life Member of the South African Ornithological Society in 1972.
Recreating the quagga
In 1986, Geoff became one of the founder committee members of a project to re-create the extinct quagga by selective breeding of southern African plains zebras from Etosha in Namibia. The project has made considerable progress towards its goal and has been enthusiastically taken over by South African National Parks. Geoff remained a member of the committee until his death.
His publications, other than his part in the ‘Roberts’ revision, cover a wide field, including geology, snakes, lizards and whales. In his so-called retirement, Geoff actively pursued his many interests, living on a property at Plettenberg Bay which was full of bird-attracting indigenous plants and trees. Geoff and Paula bought the Knysna Nursery, and his great interest became growing and promoting indigenous trees and fynbos. But birds were never far from his interests, and he was a founder member of the Plettenberg Bay Bird Club, and he nurtured and guided it as its Honorary Life President.
Geoff had a special interest in queleas. Due to their ability to survive drought and persecution by man, he considered them uniquely adapted to the harsh African landscape. He was delighted when a flock visited his bird table at Plettenberg Bay for a few days. He kept a list of the rare sightings for the newsletter, was involved in the Co-ordinated Waterfowl Counts (CWAC) from the beginning and always had a team known as the ‘loerie loerers’ for Big Birding Day. Geoff had a rare quality — a curiosity about nature that is seldom seen today.
He earned much respect from his colleagues, best gleaned from the many tributes, most of which speak of his immense knowledge, that he was happy to share with any who enquired. To the end, he was working on distribution maps of snakes in Southern Africa, and crusading for the preservation of our heritage and environment.
Geoff McLachlan died at Plettenberg Bay on 17 January 2005, at the age of 81
Bayworld – A Monument to Dr. Geoff McLachlan by Hugh Baakens (Eastern Province Herald, 2005)