Robert May, Theoretical Ecologist Who Advised UK Gov’t, Dies

The Australian physicist-turned-biologist served as a top scientist in the UK government and president of the Royal Society, among other prestigious appointments.

Jef Akst
Jef Akst
Apr 30, 2020
© THE ROYAL SOCIETY

Although he started out his academic career studying theoretical physics, Robert “Bob” May is better known for his contributions to the field of ecology as well as for his political influence in the UK. The Australian scientist died this week (April 28) at age 84.

May earned his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Sydney in 1959 and spent a couple years at Harvard University before returning to his alma matter to become a senior lecturer and then professor. But after reading a book on ecology, May became fascinated with animal populations and communities, according to The Sunday Morning Herald. He joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1973 and began developing models for understanding the basic dynamics of ecological systems.

“He transformed the science of ecology from a descriptive, observational discipline into a theoretical science with a firm mathematical basis,” Hamish McCallum of the University of Griffith, which awarded May the title of Doctor of the University in 2015, tells Griffith News.

May also used his mathematical prowess to predict the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, with his models yielding more-accurate projections than the World Health Organization’s, the Herald reports. McCallum notes that May’s modeling legacy extends to the current outbreak of COVID-19. “The models being used to guide the management of the coronavirus pandemic all have their genesis in the seminal work Lord Robert May undertook 40 years ago with Sir Roy Anderson,” he tells Griffith News.

May moved to the UK in 1988, where he served as a Royal Society professor of zoology with appointments at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford until he became UK’s chief scientific advisor in 1995. In that role for five years, May responded to the rising voices of those opposed to genetically modified (GM) foods and fought to reverse a dipping budget for scientific research, according to the Herald.

In 2000, he became the president of the Royal Society. Two years later, Queen Elizabeth II appointed May to the Order of Merit, a highly selective membership that celebrates individuals who have made substantial contributions to society through the armed forces, science, art, literature, and more. This followed May’s knighting in 1996. In 2007, he took home the Royal Society’s most prestigious prize, the Copley Medal, which has also been awarded to Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking.

“[He was] awarded virtually every honour the British establishment could offer,” McCallum tells Griffith News.

See “Robert May: Out like a lion

“Robert May was an extraordinary man who drove great change in every domain he committed his talents to,” Venki Ramakrishnan, the current president of the Royal Society, says in a statement. “Bob was a natural communicator and used every available avenue to share his message that science and reason should lie at the heart of society, and he did so with a fervent pursuit that resonates with those of the Society’s founding members.”

He is survived by his wife, Judith, and their daughter, Nome.