Robert M. May, physicist turned ecologist, dies at 84

Photo courtesy of The Royal Society.

The physicist turned ecologist Robert M. May died on April 28, 2020, at the age of 84, according to the Guardian (April 29, 2020). A scientific polymath who started his career in theoretical physics, May was responsible for major advances in population biology and theoretical ecology: he edited the popular text Theoretical Ecology: Principles and Applications (1976), now in its third edition. Later, he also worked on issues in epidemiology and finance. May additionally served as Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government from 1995 to 2000 and as president of the Royal Society from 2000 to 2005.

May was clearly aware of, and concerned about, the deleterious effects of creationism on evolution education. In a brief article on "Creationism, Evolution, and High School Texts" published in Nature in 1982, in the wake of the decision in McLean v. Arkansas, he warned that despite the recent legal victory, "there are signs that new editions of major high school texts are being eviscerated" of their evolutionary content, and noted also that a creationist biology textbook was then approved for use in Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Oregon. He is reported to have responded to a creationist's challenge to debate by saying, "That would look good on your CV, not so good on mine." As president of the Royal Society in 2002, he lamented (PDF) the prevalence of "quarrels about the teaching of biblically literal Creationism as a valid alternative to evolution in science courses in schools." In his valedictory address to the Royal Society in 2005, he added that "In the USA, the aim of a growing network of fundamentalist foundations and lobby groups reaches well beyond 'equal time' for creationism, or its disguised variant 'intelligent design', in the science classroom" also to include challenges to "ideas such as global warming, pollution problems, and ozone depletion." Toward the end of his life, he was particularly vocal in supporting action on climate change.

May was born in Sydney, Australia, on January 8, 1936. He studied at the University of Sydney, where he received a B.Sc. in chemical engineering and theoretical physics in 1956 and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1959. He held academic positions at Harvard University, the University of Sydney, Princeton University, and Imperial College London and Oxford University. Among his honors were a MacArthur Foundation award in 1984, the Medal of the Linnean Society of London in 1991, and the Crafoord Prize in 1996. He was also knighted in 1996, made a peer (as Lord May of Oxford) in 2001, and appointed to the Order of Merit in 2002.

Glenn Branch
Short Bio

Glenn Branch is Deputy Director of NCSE.
Check out our coronavirus resources for teachers.

National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, EIN 11-2656357. NCSE is supported by individuals, foundations, and scientific societies. Review our annual audited financial statements and IRS 990 forms at GuideStar.

© Copyright 2020 National Center for Science Education. Privacy Policy and Disclaimer | Disclosures Required by State Law