William Styan Richards 1920-2016
The doctors told William Richards’ mother that he wouldn’t live to adulthood: but, as he liked to recall, “She was a very obstinate Yorkshire woman”. Indeed, he made it to 96. Most of his life was spent researching pest-control measures that directly improved the livelihoods of North and West African farmers. Bugs that earnt his attention included: trombicular mites; the sesame seed bug; the Sudan plague grasshopper in the great plains between the Valley of the White Nile and the Ethiopian Massif; the shoot fly; and the defoliating coccid of neem. I know nothing about such beasties beyond the sometimes improbably and always hilarious stories that ‘Prof’ told about his life spent pursuing them. ...
Under the Yearbook’s broad invitation to record “Academic Distinctions, College Offices, Sports and Athletics” there is nothing. Career: blank. Yet this modest official record belies a varied and adventurous life. He started his career as in a demonstration farm at Rothampstead. One of Richards stories recalls how he was given the option of the farm or the local old people’s home and seeing as he figured he was going to be “shovelling shit” anyway, he chose the farm.
In 1948 he moved to what was then the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan where he worked as an Entomology for the Government. Four years later, he married Enid née Alden, another Oxford graduate, who had a double first in Biology. He moved to the Central Rainlands Research station in Tozi in 1953, and his daughter, Anita, was born the same year. From 1959 he returned to work in science education in the UK, first as a Lecturer in Teacher Training and Head of the Science Department at the City of Birmingham College of Further Education, and then with the Open University. He spent two years working on secondment to the British Council in Malawi between 1974 and 1976, advising the Malawian government on the teaching of science. Perhaps tempted once again by warmer weather, Prof moved to Libya in 1978 where he took up the position of Professor of Zoology (later Head of Department) at in the Faculty of Education at the University of Al Fateh, in Fezzan.
Prof moved to Nigeria in 1983 as nation’s oil boom was finally coming to an end. He arrived as Professor of Zoology and made Maiduguri his home for the next thirty years. Through this work in arid zone development he met Sule Buba Sara, a local civil servant and forester, who became his long time friend and scientific collaborator. Prof built linkages between the University of Maiduguri and various British institutions including the universities of Portsmouth and Wales, and the Queen’s College Oxford. It was through this final linkage that I first met Prof in 2009, when he was an Emeritus Professor at Maiduguri and I was a bewildered 20 year old PPE student on the banks of Lake Chad, investigating how climate change shaped arid agriculture.
Perhaps most astounding of all of Prof’s adventures was the one that started in that, his 89th year. The extremist militant group Boko Haram led an uprising that at the time of writing has turned into an eight year conflict, claiming (on the most conservative estimates) over 20,000 lives and forcing over 2.1 million people from their homes. Prof remained in Maiduguri throughout the conflict, even as aid organisations, the international press and government institutions were evacuated. At times when the Foreign office barred all travel to Maiduguri, and there were daily bombings in the city, Prof continued to teach Zoology.
During that period he left Nigeria only for his annual three month holiday to avoid the worst of the Harmattan – during which I would meet him for dinner in the Farmer’s Club on Whitehall. On his trips back, he enjoyed attending Old Member’s events at Queen’s and went on excursions to sites of zoological curiosity, including recently the west coast of Ireland and birdwatching on the Danube. In February 2015 he wowed onlookers by climbing the hundred steps to the entrance of Marble Arch Odeon, when the lift was broken, to watch but mostly sleep through the sci-fi blockbuster, Chappie.
At the beginning of 2016 he was forced to return to the UK long-term due to a broken hip. During his convalescence at St Luke’s hospital in Headington he continued his life-long interest in listening to radio news, and was a firm, reasoned supporter of Britain remaining in the EU.
Even when his body was failing him, he retained the strength of will that had carried him from a young boy who spent much of his childhood in a sanatorium to the plains of Sudan and the Sahel. In early November 2016 he was flown in a wheelchair back to Maiduguri, impatient to continue with plans for a plantation of indigenous seedlings. He died peacefully a week later surrounded by the love of friends and students.
His funeral was held in the University of Maiduguri and attended by over a thousand people. A plantation of 20,000 indigenous seedlings has been established in his honour. He is survived by his brother Martin and his daughter Anita.