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Veteran zoologist Dennis Murphy, known for his research on Singapore's mangroves, dies at age 89

SINGAPORE – Professor Dennis Hugh Murphy, a celebrated British zoologist who influenced a generation of biologists in Singapore, died peacefully on Saturday afternoon (Nov 7) in a nursing home.

He was 89.

Prof Murphy, affectionately known as Paddy, first moved to Singapore in 1960 and joined what was then the Singapore campus of the University of Malaya as a lecturer in its Zoology Department.

His former students who spoke to The Straits Times (ST) fondly remember him as a jovial man who was eminently practical yet generous with his time, spontaneous and unorthodox in his perspectives, and humble despite his many contributions to science.

His pioneering work on Singapore’s mangrove biodiversity in the 70s and 80s included some of the earliest maps of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Mandai mangroves.

Professor Peter Ng, head of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the data and information Prof Murphy collected back then are still used by researchers today.

Prof Ng, 60, was a doctorate student under Prof Murphy in the 80s and later his colleague at the university.

Prof Murphy’s field of speciality was entomology – the study of insects – but he was a polymath with wide-ranging interests, said Prof Ng. He credits his mentor with awakening his own interest in philosophy and history.

Prof Ng recalled how Prof Murphy would often sit outside the laboratory during his afternoon breaks with a coffee and a cigarette, reading a book. When approached, he would wax poetic about whatever he was reading at the time.

“He gets you interested in these things, whether it’s Nietzsche or chaos theory, if nothing else just so you can have a discussion with him,” Prof Ng said.

“It broadens your knowledge. Speaking as a lecturer myself, it’s great to have that broad knowledge when you teach a class as it makes your teaching more powerful.”

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Another former student of Prof Murphy was Mr N. Sivasothi, 54, a senior lecturer at the NUS Department of Biological Sciences who is known for his research on otters.

Like Prof Ng, Mr Sivasothi said some of the most valuable lessons he learned from Prof Murphy were outside the classroom.

He said the priceless sessions of fieldwork and informal interactions taught him not only facts but also Prof Murphy’s perspectives and uncommon wisdom that could not be captured in a textbook.

Inspired by his experiences, Mr Sivasothi strove to recreate such opportunities for his own students when he became a lecturer.

In 1999, he started a group of volunteers for the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, now known as the NUS Toddycats programme at LKCNHM. Mr Sivasothi also partnered the National Parks Board in 2017 to start the Biodiversity Friends Forum for anyone interested in nature, including members of the public of all ages.

“I became quite the organiser of symposia, meetings and chat groups because I had learnt so much from the informal, spontaneous conversations with Murphy,” Mr Sivasothi said.

Even after his retirement in 1990, Prof Murphy continued to be a fixture at the NUS laboratories for almost a decade more, teaching the occasional class and sharing his insights with students and faculty alike.

He later served as a consultant to government agencies and various companies in insect identification.

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Mr Bernard Harrison, who was the executive director of the Singapore Zoo in the mid-90s, enlisted Prof Murphy to help set up the Fragile Forest bio-dome where visitors can get up close with various insects and other animals in a rainforest-like environment to this day.

“He was very helpful in capturing or acquiring and displaying all those local species of ants, butterflies and insects. He may have retired but he was still Mr Entomology,” said Mr Harrison, 69.

Prof Murphy’s daughter Juliette, who was born and grew up in Singapore, said she tried to persuade her father to move back to Britain with her in his later years, but he was adamant that Singapore was his home.

“He was fortunate that he had so many friends and former students who treated him like family,” said Ms Murphy, 51, who lives in Durham, in Britain

Speaking with The Straits Times from Durham, where she ended up staying after leaving Singapore in 1987, she fondly recalled how her father would often drive down from the NUS campus to pick her up after school at the nearby United World College.

His bright yellow Suzuki was easy to spot, but she often found her Dad crawling around in a nearby bush with his net, looking for insects.

Ms Murphy had been scheduled to visit her father in Singapore in April, but her plans were scuppered by the coronavirus pandemic.

She last saw him in person in April 2019 and had been writing him letters. She said his death did not come as a shock as his health had been declining in recent years.

“Still, it’s never easy to let go. It’s hard to get your head around it,” she said.

Prof Murphy’s legacy lives on in the scientific names of more than 100 species of animals named after him by other admiring local biologists who discovered them.

One example is the nudibranch sea slug, Murphydoris singaporensis, first found here in 1991 by Prof Murphy’s colleague at NUS, Jon Sigurdsson.

Prof Murphy is survived by his daughter, a son and a granddaughter. His Singaporean Chinese wife, Dr Marguerite Yin-Murphy, a microbiologist at NUS, died in 2007.

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