Honorary & Past Members

Robert (Bob) McDowall 1939 – 2011

By Don Jellyman

The well-known fisheries scientist, Bob McDowall died earlier this year after a short illness. Bob was the father of freshwater fish research and fisheries in New Zealand, and was a life member of the New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society. Although he had retired from the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA), he continued to work most days at NIWA’s Christchurch laboratory until shortly before his death in February.
Bob’s academic career started at Victoria University of Wellington (1958-62) and he studied for a PhD at Harvard University, USA (1965-68). His thesis on the taxonomy of whitebait and related genera was regarded as one of the best submitted at that time. Upon return to New Zealand he commenced work on whitebait migrations. He also worked on describing all New Zealand’s freshwater fish and published his first book in 1978. This was the forerunner of another 13 books he would complete over the next 33 years.
He moved from Wellington to Christchurch in 1979 to run the expanding laboratory at Kyle Street (the present NIWA campus) and eventually had control of 60 freshwater science staff throughout NZ. These were his ‘bureaucratic wilderness’ years as he had little time for research. A turning point for Bob was in 1985 when he was invited to be a keynote speaker at the first international conference on diadromy, the movements of fish between fresh and saltwater environments (Boston, March 1986). Another book followed but so did a period of productive research on the biogeography and dispersal of fish which continued until the present. In the limited New Zealand freshwater fish fauna, Bob realised he had the opportunity to explore biogeographical patterns and processes in a way that would have been more difficult with a larger fauna. He rapidly asserted himself as a staunch defender of oceanic dispersal as the dominant process for the distribution and colonisation of Southern Hemisphere freshwater fishes.
Bob was an enormously productive scientist, publishing over 240 papers, 14 books and roughly 300 popular articles and reports. He worked at institutes in Australia, South Africa, South America, USA and the Falkland Islands, and received many accolades and awards throughout his distinguished career, including being made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and being awarded a James Cook Fellowship. He gained election to the New Zealand Conservation Authority for two years until ill-health forced his retirement last year. He served as co-editor on a number of scientific journals and refereed many papers, including 50 in the last year alone.
Bob had a passion for discovering and disseminating knowledge and popularising science. For him, it was a privilege exploring biology and understanding relationships. He recognised that he was the right person in the right place at the right time. While he leaves a huge gap in fisheries science, his written legacy is enormous; he also influenced many younger scientists who will be grateful they knew this remarkable man. His widow, Ainslie, has provided an endowment fund that will bear Bob’s name, and will assist young freshwater scientists in furthering their careers.

Bob McDowall tribute
Bob McDowall tribute interview video

In this section: