Veteran zoologist, mangrove expert dies

Briton's data from pioneering work still being used by researchers today

Professor Dennis Hugh Murphy died on Nov 7 at a nursing home in Singapore. He was 89.
Professor Dennis Hugh Murphy's legacy lives on in the scientific names of more than 100 species of animals named after him.

In a career spanning about 40 years, National University of Singapore (NUS) Professor Dennis Hugh Murphy created some of the earliest maps of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Mandai mangroves.

He also had a hand in the development of the Singapore Zoo's Fragile Forest bio-dome, where visitors to this day can get up close with insects and other animals in a rainforest setting.

On Nov 7, the celebrated British zoologist who mentored a generation of biologists in Singapore died peacefully in a nursing home here. He was 89.

Prof Murphy, affectionately known as Paddy, first moved to Singapore in 1960 and joined the then Singapore campus of the University of Malaya as a lecturer in its Zoology Department.

Speaking to The Straits Times, his former students said they have fond memories of a jovial man who was practical yet generous with his time, spontaneous and unorthodox in his perspectives, and humble despite his towering contributions to science.

Prof Murphy's key achievements include pioneering work on Singapore's mangrove biodiversity in the 70s and 80s.

Professor Peter Ng, head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at NUS, said the data and information Prof Murphy collected are still used by researchers today. Prof Ng, 60, was a doctorate student under Prof Murphy in the 80s and later his colleague at the university.

Prof Murphy's field of speciality was entomology - the study of insects - but he was also a polymath with wide ranging interests, said Prof Ng. He credits his mentor with awakening his own interest in philosophy and history.

Prof Ng said Prof Murphy would often sit outside the laboratory during his afternoon breaks with a coffee and a cigarette, reading a book. He would often get into lengthy discussions about what he was reading at the time, if anyone asked.

Another former student of Prof Murphy, Mr N. Sivasothi, 54, is a senior lecturer at the NUS Department of Biological Sciences known for his research on otters.

Like Prof Ng, Mr Sivasothi said some of the most valuable lessons he learnt from Prof Murphy were outside the classroom.

Even after his retirement in 1990, Prof Murphy continued to be a fixture at the NUS labs for nearly a decade more.

He later served as a consultant to government agencies and various firms in insect identification.

Mr Bernard Harrison, 69, who was the executive director of the Singapore Zoo in the mid-90s, enlisted Prof Murphy to help set up the zoo's Fragile Forest.

"He was very helpful in capturing or acquiring and displaying all those local species of ants, butterflies and insects. He may have retired but he was still Mr Entomology," said Mr Harrison.

Prof Murphy's daughter Juliette, who was born and grew up in Singapore, said she tried to persuade her father to return to Britain with her in his later years, but he adamantly refused - Singapore was his home, he said.

Ms Murphy, 51, said: "He was fortunate that he had so many friends and former students who treated him like family."

Prof Murphy's legacy lives on in the scientific names of more than 100 species of animals named after him by other admiring local biologists who discovered them. One example is the nudibranch sea slug, Murphydoris singaporensis, first found here in 1991 by Prof Murphy's NUS colleague Jon Sigurdsson.

Prof Murphy also has a son and granddaughter. His Singaporean Chinese wife, Dr Marguerite Yin-Murphy, a microbiologist at NUS, died in 2007.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2020, with the headline 'Veteran zoologist, mangrove expert dies'. Subscribe