Wits honours UP's Prof John Skinner
Posted on 31 May 2011
The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) has bestowed its highest academic honour - DSc Honoris Causa - on the University of Pretoria's Prof John Skinner in recognition of his huge contribution to South African and international science in the fields of zoology and mammalogy. The citation noted that "no one has done more to bring zoology to the attention of the South African community, whether it be game farmers, agricultural extension officers, or the visitor to a national park, or to bring South African mammalogy to the attention of the international research community".
Prof Skinner has had an illustrious career; the greater part of it spent at the University of Pretoria. The seeds of it were sown at St John’s College in Johannesburg. He took his first degree - in animal science - at the then University of Natal. On graduating he accepted a job at the Mara Research Station, where he was intimately involved with the development of the highly successful Bonsmara cattle breed. It was at Mara that his skills at turning scientific knowledge into practical use were honed.
Over the years, the topic of his studies ranged from the effect of male hormones on growth in piglets, to the physiology and anatomy of giraffes and springbok and other mammals, to his cardinal contribution to the science behind the successes and the failures of game farming as a source of meat for Africa.
After seven years at Mara, Prof Skinner’s potential was recognized by amongst others Prof Jan Bonsma, and he was seconded to UP for post-graduate studies. This was his first encounter, 46 years ago, with the University where he has spent most of his academic career. After obtaining an MSc he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for a PhD on the reproductive endocrinology of livestock. On his return to South Africa he was appointed at the Irene Animal Production Institute, but did not stay long. During his short stay there he nevertheless established, from scratch, an active Reproductive Physiology Section. In 1972, he was appointed Director of the newly established Mammal Research Institute (MRI) at UP, a post which he held for 26 years. During his tenure Prof Skinner made the Institute the best-known centre for mammal research in Africa, and one of the best known in the world. For many of his years as Director he was also Head of the Department of Zoology at UP. Most of his extraordinary research output was done at the MRI. He has published more than 350 original scientific papers and has not stopped yet. Over the last year at least five articles appeared of which he is principal author, including a chapter on Giraffidae in the forthcoming “Handbook of World Mammals”. In Prof Skinner’s philosophy research output without concomitant production of post graduate students is a waste. He has an innate ability for attracting the very best undergraduates into higher degrees and more than 100 PhD and master’s students have so far enjoyed his attention and encouragement. There is no better hallmark of a University teacher at a research-based institution than the success of his or her students. Nineteen of Prof Skinner’s students have become professors at Universities and four have become Deans of Science. Famous names amongst them include Professor Bob Millar, Director of the prestigious Medical Research Council’s Unit of Reproductive Endocrinology in Edinburgh, Scotland, who, in 2011, has been appointed Director of the Mammal Research Institute; Professor Albert van Jaarsveld, President of the National Research Foundation; Professor Terry Robinson, biochemist at the University of Stellenbosch; Professor Rudi van Aarde, Africa’s best known elephant scientist, and Professor Graham Kerley, Director of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. His students’ careers have not been confined to academia: Anthony Hall-Martin, formerly Deputy Director of SanParks, Dr Pat Condy, formerly Director of Conservation for the Johannesburg City Council and Malan Lindeque, Director-General of National Parks in Namibia were amongst his students.
During his whole career he has championed zoology. He has taught zoology, supervised zoology higher degrees, given invited plenary lectures on zoology and mammalogy all over the world, been Chairman of the Council of the National Zoological Gardens, edited zoological journals and his written or edited several books about South Africa’s mammals the best known of which is “Mammals of the Southern African sub-region”. This book is the standard text on South African mammals, is found in University libraries all over the world and is a collector’s item. It is unlikely ever to be surpassed. Congruent with his advocacy of zoology Prof Skinner has carried a massive load in scientific professional activities. He has been President of South Africa’s oldest professional scientific society, the Royal Society of South Africa (and for many years edited its journal the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa) and President of the Zoological Society of South Africa. Internationally he was for ten years the Chairman of the Hyena Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and, amongst many other appointments, has been consultant to the Australian CSIRO and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a scientific assessor for National Science Foundation (USA), National Environmental Research Council (UK), Leverhulme Trust (UK) and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Germany). He is a member of the Russian Academy of Science. He has also found time to serve on many University Committees especially those that promote graduate study and research, and has been external examiner at nine South African Universities.
Wits – although the first university to honour him with an honorary degree – is not the first to recognize Prof Skinner’s distinction. He is a life Scientific Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, and a life Fellow of the Institute of Biology, London, a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and a life Member of the Zoological Society of South Africa and the Wildlife Management Association of South Africa. His distinction in research has been recognized by the award of the Gold Medal of the Zoological Society of South Africa, and the Senior Captain Scott Medal of the Biological Society of South Africa, and the Merit Award of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1972 he was voted, by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, one of four Outstanding Young South Africans of that year, an award that in the fullness of time has been justified many times over. Prof John Skinner has been and still is a famous name in the world of mammalogy.