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OBITUARY: BOB BRAIN

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OBITUARY: BOB BRAIN

(7 May 1931 – 6 June 2023)

By: Lazarus Kgasi & Teresa Kearney, DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History

 

As a measure of the many achievements in his life there have been numerous tributes to Dr Charles Kimberlin [Bob] Brain before and following his death on 8 June 2023. Many of these reflect on the extensive and important contributions he made in the field of Palaeosciences (https://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/server/api/core/bitstreams/27e58f9f-3120-4ac6-bb6a-b4e76579185c/content; https://past.org.za/bob-brain-tribute/; https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2023-06-08-renowned-south-african-palaeontologist-bob-brain-dies-at-92/).

 

While palaeontology came to dominate his research, Bob’s interests in natural history were broad. In his book Austin Roberts – A lifelong devotion to South Africa’s bird and beast (2008, p1) Bob wrote “Lovers of nature persist in the guise of naturalists – Austin Roberts was one and I count myself fortunate to be in his company. It seems to me that compulsive naturalists generally have had two influences at work in their lives; the first comes from parents who instill in the young child a sense of wonder about the natural world and a desire to know more about it. The second influence is likely to come as a confirmation during adolescence, when the already predisposed child comes under the spell of a natural historian at a formative stage”. Besides the influence of his parents (his father a professor of entomology and his mother a botanist), his passion for how past life can enrich the present was influenced by a prehistorian (Rev. Neville Jones), and a geologist with interests in palaeontology (Prof. Geoff Bond). As a teenager Bob also spent afternoons at the Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History) reading in the library and learning taxidermy from Archibald White. 

As mentioned in this tribute published in Bob’s 90th year (https://creativefeel.co.za/2021/04/a-tribute-to-dr-ck-bob-brain/), Bob worked for many years (1953-1960 & 1965-1991) at the Transvaal Museum, with a short interlude as Keeper of Zoology at Queen Victoria Museum in Harare, Zimbabwe. At the Transvaal Museum, a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation initially funded a contract Research Associate position in the Palaeontology Department (1954-1957). He then curated the herpetology collection for four years (1957-1960) under the supervision of Dr Vivian FitzSimons who was the museum director. During this time, he was also one of the founders of the Namib Desert Research Station at Gobabeb. On his return from Zimbabwe he was Head of the Palaeontology Department (1965-1969), and then Director of the Transvaal Museum for 23 years (1969-1991) until his retirement. Whilst serving as director he continued to undertake research and was also active in the Displays Department. Most of the current exhibitions were initiated, planned and built under his guidance (Austin Roberts Bird Hall, Life’s Genesis I and Life’s Genesis II), with considerable thought about the visitor experience and the information to be passed on, as he documented in his 1991 article ‘The Transvaal Museum 1968-1991: A place of quiet scholarship’ on his perspective as the retiring director. Bob also contributed to the larger museum community as President of the South African Museum’s Association (1968-1970, and 1986-1987), and wrote ‘Making of the Museum Professions in Southern Africa 1936-1986’ to mark the South African Museum’s Associations 50th anniversary. After his retirement Bob became the Curator of Invertebrates using scanning electron microscopy to study single celled creatures, amoeba and rotifers. Once again what he described as an intuitive, steadfast streak, led him to yet another change in his field of specialization, which was unusual in a time of scientific specialization.

 

Those who knew Bob would find it remiss for there to be no mention of his late wife, Laura, and their children, Rosemary (Mel), Virginia (Gin), Tim, and Conrad. His family was such an important part of his work and research, and part of his larger view that self-motivated, self-generated productivity and success was based on finding pleasure and fun in one’s work, and as evidence by how he lived – finding it in one’s life.

 

In dedicating the volume of Palaeontologia africana (2000, p1) to Bob, the start of Prof. Bruce Rubidge’s tribute captured what those who knew Bob as “a remarkable person, a committed scientist, passionate naturalist, a leader in science, and dedicated family man and friend, who is an inspiration to all who know him” (https://wiredspace.wits.ac.za/server/api/core/bitstreams/27e58f9f-3120-4ac6-bb6a-b4e76579185c/content).

 

 

 

 

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