Brian Robert Allanson (1928-2022)

Brian Robert Allanson (1928-2022)

 Brian Allanson was born in 1928 in Sri Lanka and passed away in July 2022 in South Africa. While limnology began in South Africa with GE Hutchinson’s pioneering studies of pans, vleis and Hartbeespoort Dam in the 1920s, Brian must be credited as the discipline’s ‘father’ in the country. Accepting a four-year long Transvaal River Research Fellowship award in 1956, he started to determine the health of the rivers feeding the province’s water supply – the beginning of his illustrious career in limnology, and aquatic ecology more broadly. During tenure of this fellowship, Brian was sent to England for a year as a visiting worker at the DSIR Water Pollution Laboratories in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where he completed the write-up for his studies of the province’s polluted waters for a PhD from the University of Cape Town. On his return, he was appointed Head of the Division of Hydrobiology at the CSIR’s National Institute for Water Research, where he continued work on rivers and reservoirs, undertaking seminal work on Hartbeespoort Dam, the river reservoir subsequently infamous for its severe hypertrophy. Brian’s early work on this reservoir alerted him to the relevance of the river-reservoir interface, and thus the importance of catchment management, currently perceived as an obvious ‘given’.

In 1963, Brian was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Zoology and Entomology at Rhodes University (in Grahamstown, now Makhanda) – the youngest Professor ever to have been appointed there. In this capacity, he continued his hydrobiological and limnological research endeavours, while strongly encouraging graduate studies on nearby estuaries.  However, his academic diversity and versatility quickly became evident as he supervised scores of MSc and PhD student researchers on a wide range of taxa (including annelids, insects, molluscs, crustaceans, arachnids, fish, birds and mammals) in single-species autecological studies (encompassing inter alia physiology, behaviour, and structural anatomy) through multispecies synecology (of microbial, phytoplankton, hydrophyte, zooplankton, zoobenthos, and fish communities) to whole ecosystems. His aquatic research interests spanned both inland waters (rivers, coastal lakes, reservoirs, wetlands) and thalassic systems (estuaries, nearshore coastal zones, later extending to open ocean waters. With an underlying hallmark of holistic vision, Brian followed academic interests on a variety of topics, in many ways personifying a classical English professor, with research interests and endeavours spanning a diversity of topics.

Following his early focal interest in subtropical coastal lakes (resulting in a 1960 paper in Nature on the occurrence of estuarine faunal taxa in the ‘freshwater’ Lake Sibaya), Brian established the Institute for Fresh Water Studies (IFWS) at Rhodes University in 1965, and served as its first Director. The IFWS played a seminal role in the investigation of the physics, chemistry and biology of natural coastal lakes both in KwaZulu-Natal (Lake Sibaya and the Kosi Bay lakes/estuarine system) and the Southern Cape (Swartvlei and associated Wilderness lakes system). Brian master-minded the construction of permanent field stations on L. Sibaya, and subsequently on Swartvlei. His active research on L. Sibaya necessitated a twice-yearly two-day drive from Grahamstown. Arriving at the lake, Brian would customarily perform what was, to the student entourage, an almost sacrilegious waste: he would walk to the end of the mooring jetty to pour some bottled beer on the lake as a ‘libation to the gods’ – to ensure safety and success for the venture and all its participants. It certainly worked on the first count – safety: despite research thrusts that required scuba-diving in the crocodile and hippo-inhabited lake, no-one was ever lost or injured at the field station. However, rising lake levels resulting from cyclical climate-pattern events did flood the Sibaya field station, forcing its abandonment in the late 1970’s.

Brian’s own research interests on L. Sibaya became dominated by what was a resource-constrained pre-occupation/obsession with ‘physical limnology’, especially the Wedderburn number. His plexiglass model lake constructed to visually demonstrate the establishment of thermal stratification, wind-induced mixing, and ‘overturn’ strongly augmented the persuasive and compelling case Brian subsequently made to a prominent leading bank for the endowment of a specialized chair at Rhodes – the Barclays National Bank Chair of Postgraduate Limnology. During its 5-year term (1983 – 1987), this endowed chair facilitated the completion of some 15 MSc (Limnology) graduates. Brian was instrumental in further capitalizing on the educational value of the chair through its support of short specialized courses run by notable experts – including Clifford Mortimer (physical limnology) and Brian Moss (algal biology).

Following loss of the Sibaya station, the focus of its IFWS researchers was redirected to the Vanderkloof (formerly P.K. le Roux) Dam – one of SA’s largest and most turbid impoundments.

During his tenure as Professor at Rhodes, Allanson had spells as visiting professor and/or researcher at Indiana University, Oxford University and at the FBA’s Ferry House, Windermere. He further collaborated on an on-going basis with the Water Research Centre at the University of Western Australia.

As a determined man of resolute principle, Brian’s deeply held convictions of right and wrong that could be (and were) interpreted in a negative light by some, particularly since the ‘landscape’ of limnological endeavour in South Africa was (and remains) severely under-resourced and resultingly fractious. However, those who knew Brian recognized that he was driven to ensure the honest pursuit of evidence-based hard science, with no attempts at personal aggrandizement.

While not explicitly articulating negativity about the national limnological arena, Brian voted with his feet – increasingly aligning himself with its friendlier and better-resourced marine counterparts. Already well-established in the estuarine arena, he began venturing into deeper offshore waters by exploiting cruises of the SA Agulhas – the SA supply ship that re-provisions and relieves the manned SANAE base in Antarctica and Marion Island – as ‘voyages of scientific opportunity’.  Multi-institutional scientific teams making these voyages conducted research on ocean temperatures, chemistry, plankton and primary productivity, alongside studies of atmospheric physics, and marine birds and mammals. Brian himself served as Chief Scientist aboard two relief voyages to Antarctica, firstly in 1981, and a cruise to Marion Island.  During these voyages, Brian shared his broad knowledge liberally. These were preludes to his establishment in 1983 of the Southern Ocean Research Group – a highly collaborative endeavour that remains active to this day.

Brian Allanson formally retired from the Chair of Zoology at Rhodes in 1988, but continued to serve the University as a researcher and mentor of singular distinction. During his long tenure as Chair, he provided very distinguished service to the university. Inter alia, he served as Dean of the Faculty of Science for several terms, as Chairman of the Research Committee, and as the first Dean of Research. To honour this contribution, his students, colleagues and others set up the Prof BR Allanson Scholarship for post-doctoral study. His scientific involvements outside the ambit of the university itself were both numerous and influential. Brian was the first Vice President of the Limnological Society of Southern Africa (LSSA) when it was founded in 1963, and as its President in 1970. He also served as President of the Zoological Society of Southern Africa (ZSSA) for two terms (1986 and 1988.) He was chairman and/or active participant member of several national scientific standing committees and working groups.

Brian was a prolific researcher, a much-valued teacher and postgraduate supervisor, and an inspiration to all who followed in the directions that he opened up. During the course of his long career, he published over 100 scholarly journal articles alongside many reports, conference proceedings and four books which he co-authored or edited. As an inspirational and extraordinary example of determined and persistent scholarship, at age 90, he published a journal article and saw the graduation of his last PhD candidate. He received many honours and awards, having been inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa (1968), recipient of the first LSSA gold medal (in the late 1980’s) and the ZSSA’s 13th Gold Medal (1987), Doctor of Science from the University of Natal (1980), and South Africa’s Order of Meritorious Service – Silver – awarded by South Africa’s State President for services to Science and University Education (1990), and Doctor of Science Honoris Causa from Rhodes University (1992). In 2010, his outstanding achievements culminated in the award of SIL’s Naumann-Thienemann Medal – the highest honour bestowed internationally for outstanding scientific contributions to limnology – specifically for his leadership of the development of limnology in South Africa.


This profile was written by Rob C Hart – Professor Emeritus, University of KwaZulu-Natal & Richard D Robarts, Courtenay, BC, Canada

Published books

Allanson B R (Ed.) 1979. Lake Sibaya. Monographiae Biologicae 36. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht.  viii + 364 pp.

Allanson B R, R C Hart, J H O’Keeffe and R D Robarts 1990. Inland Waters of Southern Africa: An Ecological Perspective. Monographiae Biologicae 64. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht. ix + 458 pp.

Allanson B R 1995. An Introduction to the management of inland water ecosystems in South Africa. WRC Report TT 72/95. vi + 77 pp.

Allanson B R and D Baird (Eds) 2011. Estuaries of South Africa. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. xi + 340 pp.