Wednesday 19 December 2018

Obituary: British-born scientist David Goodall (104) who died in assisted suicide in Switzerland

Well-travelled botanist who advanced our knowledge of plant biosystems

ECOLOGIST: David Goodall
ECOLOGIST: David Goodall

David Goodall, who died last Thursday at a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland aged 104, was a botanist and ecologist who raised concerns about climate change and population growth long before they reached the political agenda.

Climate change, in particular, was something that he believed should have been tackled long ago. "They ought to have thought about it at the start of last century, then we would have been able to make some changes, but now we can't," he said in 2016.

Goodall, who since retiring nearly 40 years ago had been editor of the 30-volume Ecosystems of the World, was the author or co-author of more than 130 academic papers that advanced our understanding of the biosystems of organisms as diverse as tomato plants, cocoa crops and crayfish.

He was particularly concerned with maximising food production for an ever-growing population, and his first research post during the war involved the optimum use of fertilisers on plant crops.

David William Goodall was born at Edmonton, north London, on April 4, 1914, the son of Henry Goodall and Isabel (nee Harlow).

He was educated at St Paul's School, recalling how "a very good teacher led me from an earlier interest in chemistry into biology".

He completed his BSc at Imperial College in 1935, receiving the Forbes Memorial Prize from the Royal College of Science. He then travelled in northern Europe, and in 1936 spent a month living with a Nazi family in Dortmund.

At the outbreak of war Goodall considered joining the Navy, but was exempt from conscription because of his work at the Research Institute of Plant Physiology, based at East Malling, in Kent.

He served in the Home Guard, which he recalled was "undemanding", and in his spare time completed a PhD thesis entitled Studies in the Assimilation of the Tomato Plant.

Afterwards he moved to the Gold Coast (later Ghana) to work for the Cocoa Research Institute. "My main project was to study the need of cocoa for shade," he told New Scientist magazine. He recalled living in a house in Tafo provided by the Colonial Service and enjoying games of tennis.

His first move to Australia was in 1948, when he was appointed senior lecturer in Botany at the University of Melbourne. While there he completed a second doctorate. He was back in Britain in 1954 as Professor of Agricultural Botany at the University of Reading, and over the next 20 years held posts at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia and at universities in California and Utah in the US.

In 1974 he returned to Australia, where he was senior principal research scientist at the CSIRO Division of Land Resources Management until his retirement in 1979.

For the past four decades he had worked unpaid, reviewing academic papers and supervising PhD candidates. Latterly he was an honorary research associate at the Centre for Ecosystem Management at Edith Cowan University in Joondalup, near Perth, Western Australia.

Goodall was briefly in the news in 2016 aged 102 when the university declared his presence on campus to be a safety risk. After an international outcry against "ageism", an alternative workspace was found.

He enjoyed acting and was a member of a poetry reading group called Well Versed in Perth. "Luckily it's in the daytime because, since my [driving] licence was taken away, I rely on public transport," he said.

Goodall, who received an honorary doctorate from the University of Trieste in Italy, was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2016. When asked about the secret to his longevity, he replied: "To keep alive, keep active."

Younger scientists were urged to be aware of the history of their field: "The decline of libraries makes it easy to forget."

David Goodall was married three times and had four children.

© Telegraph

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