Prof. R. J. G. Savage

Prof. R.J.G. Savage

Robert Savage, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol, died of cancer of the pancreas on May 9th aged 70. He was born on 2nd July 1927.

Bob Savage was a leading expert on fossil mammals, best known for his work in Africa, and something of a raffish gentleman explorer. He began his work in Africa in 1955, working first with Louis Leakey, and latterly with his son, Richard, and daughter-in-law, Meave Leakey. The Leakeys focussed their attentions on the early human remains, but they gathered around them experts on the other fossils from their sites. Bob took part in many expeditions in Kenya and Tanzania, and published extensively on the fossil carnivorous mammals of the hominid sites.

Bob was bitten by the Africa bug after this early initiation, and he published accounts of fossil mammals from Uganda, Congo, and especially from Libya. He and his students in the 1960s would drive to Libya from Bristol in Bob's landrover. The journey took three days and nights of continuous driving, through France and Spain, across to Morocco from Gibraltar and then to Libya via Algeria and Tunisia. Bob and his colleagues focussed their attention on the Gebel Zeltan fauna of southern Libya, an assemblage of mammals dating from the Miocene, a time twenty million years ago, when North Africa was lushly forested. Bob wrote several monographs on the fauna, part of a series published by the British Museum (Natural History), and his account of Megistotherium a giant flesh-eating hyaenodont with a skull over a metre long, is a classic.

Bob Savage's work on African mammals found another focus in an influential series of volumes, which he co-edited with Louis Leakey, and other collaborators, on the 'Fossil Vertebrates of Africa', in the 1960s and 1970s. His expeditions were not restricted to Africa, and he led successful explorations to Iran (then Persia), Israel, India, Pakistan, Russia and Australia. In 1991, on his retirement, he drove from Pakistan to Beijing, across the Himalayas, as a diversion.

Bob was born in Northern Ireland in 1927, a member of an old Ulster family that held sway in the southern part of the Ards Peninsula, County Down. He recalled a massive set of antlers of the great Irish deer Megaloceros mounted on a wall of the entrance hall to the family pile. Bob was educated at Methodist College, Belfast and at Wesley College, Dublin, but he did not maintain a methodist or protestant faith, becoming a humanist in his adult years. Bob graduated with a double undergraduate degree, a BSc in Zoology in 1948, and a first class BSc in Geology in 1949, from the Queen's University of Belfast. He worked for his PhD from 1950 to 1952 at University College, London, under Professor D.M.S. Watson, the doyen of British vertebrate palaeontology at the time.

Bob's first academic position was as Assistant Lecturer in the Geology Department at the Queen's University of Belfast, in 1952. There he worked with the great expert on the Irish Pleistocene, Professor Charlesworth, and was involved in the move of that Department into a new purpose-built edifice. Bob soon moved to Bristol, in 1954, as a Lecturer and Curator of the collections in the Department of Geology. He was promoted to a Readership in 1966, and to a Personal Chair in Vertebrate Palaeontology, in 1982.

Bob maintained a broad interest in local geology, first in Ireland, and then in the south west of England. He was a constant source of help to amateurs and enthusiasts, organising field trips, and helping them to publish their discoveries. He became deeply interested in the very early Mesozoic mammals of the Bristol area, and slightly further afield, on Skye. These local geological interests extended to the history of his science: he was an avid collector of early geological and natural history books, and published on the history of geology.

Bob made enthusiastic efforts in educating new generations of palaeontologists. In 1968, he began a Joint Degree in Geology and Zoology in Bristol, and this programme flourishes to the present day. It is widely recognised as a training ground for keen young palaeontologists, and a remarkable number of its graduates have gone on to successful academic careers. This always made Bob inordinately proud, and he kept continuous contact with his former students. He supervised 17 PhD students, mainly marking on fossil mammals, British and African. Among his popular works, Bob edited an excellent field guide to the geology of the Bristol area, published in 1977, and contributed to numerous popular works in palaeontology and geology. His greatest joy was his book 'Mammal evolution', published by the British Museum (Natural History) in 1986, richly illustrated with colour paintings by Michael Long. This book is referred to as 'Savage and Long', an addition to a paper published by Bob and local colleague, Nick Large in 1966, namely 'Savage and Large'.

Latterly, Bob extended his interests to historic gardens, and he studied formal gardens of stately homes large and small in the Bristol area. He served on local committees of the National Trust, and was Chairman of their Committee on Stag Hunting in 1992 and 1993.

Bob was endlessly helpful to scholars young and old, and boyishly enthusiastic about matters geological and historical. He had a patrician air, and was full of stories of the great and the good. He was an amusing raconteur, whose tales, admittedly, improved with the telling.

He sat on the Council of Bristol Zoo from 1984 to 1989, and this apparently gave him access to recently deceased exotica. Some of the carcasses found their way to his dissecting bench, others into his kitchen. He once sampled some hippopotamus steak, and on being asked what it tasted like reported, "well something like okapi."

by Mike Benton, May 1998

Return to Department of Earth Sciences Home Page
This page is maintained by liz.loeffler@bris.ac.uk and was last updated on 16th March 1999