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Professor Bob Scholes: Farewell ‘giant savanna tree’

- Wits University

Scholes’ students describe him as a ‘giant savanna tree providing shade in the heat, shelter in the rain, and a point of reference to navigate by’.

Memorial service for Professor Bob Scholes

Close to 500 colleagues, friends and family paid tribute to Professor Bob Scholes during a virtual memorial service held by Wits University on Thursday, 13 May 2021. The Wits flags also flew half-mast in his honour.

Scholes, one of the world’s leading scientists on Climate Change, was a Professor of Systems Ecology, a Director of the Global Change Institute (GCI) and a Distinguished Professor at Wits. He passed away on the evening of Wednesday, 28 April, following a hike in Namibia with friends and colleagues. He was 63 years old. (Read Wits University’s tribute.)

Leading the tributes, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, said it is ‘very difficult to convey the immense contribution Bob made to global change science. He aspired to a better world. He was a great scholar, son, national hero taken too soon from us. His commitment to his field represents why he inspired a whole generation. His legacy will live on through his work, his students, and his colleagues and friends."

Scholes’ wife, Professor Mary Scholes, and their son, Stirling, reflected on his ‘encyclopedic knowledge, dry humour and stoic optimism that made him not just a knowledgeable man but also a wise man’.

“Our life was full of fun and glory,” Professor Mary Scholes said, adding that her husband died as he would have wished: ‘…with his boots on, peacefully under the shade of a Mopani tree’.

Memorial service for Professor Bob Scholes

Power of his legacy

Speaking on behalf of the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, Professor Marcus Byrne paid homage to Scholes as a teacher and a mentor to his students, saying he helped and applied his knowledge wherever he could.

One such student is Ndoni Mcunu who is currently doing her PhD. She is also the Founder and CEO of Black Women in Science. In a moving tribute she said: “Any room you entered you would proudly state that you are Bob’s student and then would instantly inherent respect based on the power of his work and legacy.”

“He taught me the meaning of creating and sustaining a legacy personally and in academia. He taught me to speak out, made us question everything, including him. He made sure we learned how climate change in Africa needs to be led by Africans and African scientists. I’m going to dedicate my PhD and the impact that I’m going to make in my career to him. No words can explain the gratitude I have in my heart.”

Person of the planet

Professor Michel Verstraete, Visiting Professor at the GCI, described Scholes as a ‘walking library with a sharp and inquisitive mind and phenomenal memory. He fully embraced life and was acutely aware of how to build a just society. He led an exemplary life and practiced the idea of thinking globally and acting locally.”

Professor Francois Engelbrecht speaking on behalf of the GCI, said Scholes was one of the most influential ecologists in the world and a legend in his own time. “As a leader, Bob had a principled, inclusive and yet decisive leadership style. He was a tremendous scientist with a tremendous intellect. And he was also an extremely happy person who enjoyed every day of his life.”

Australian scientist Professor Will Steffen, a close colleague and friend of Scholes, said he was one of the most popular and well-respected colleagues in the global change community. “He was a patriotic South African but at home anywhere on earth – truly a person of the planet,” Steffen said.

In his own words

As a student, Scholes intuitive early on that his academic, social and activist life would be dedicated to the preservation of the planet. In this Wits.For Good podcast, broadcast on 702 in July 2020, he shares his expertise on global warming and climate change:

Tributes from South Africa and around the world

A tribute by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says: “We have lost one of our very best. Professor Bob Scholes was a pioneer in all that he did. He was a commanding intellect and never allowed anyone to be complacent about science.”

“We are deeply grateful for Professor Bob Scholes’ enduring contributions to our organization and the broader environmental sector. He will be remembered as a true leader and a conscientious and dedicated scientist.” – World Wildlife Fund tribute. 

“Colleagues and friends who have crossed various and dynamic paths with the late Professor Bob Scholes at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) saluted him and described him as a gentle, caring, sensitive, intuitive, perceptive and passionate giant.” Read the full tribute by the CSIR. 

“We are grieving the loss of our incredible mentor and advisor, Professor Bob Scholes. He chaired the Research and Advisory Committee for the status report on biological invasions, and he provided invaluable leadership and knowledge that will be sorely missed,” said Dr Tsungai Zengeya, a South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) lead scientist of the South African biological invasions status report. Read the full tribute.

“The contribution made by Professor Bob Scholes to the work of the Department in both the climate change and biodiversity fields was immeasurable. His untimely death is a shock to us all,” writes Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Minister Barbara Creecy.

“We also recognize the important role Professor Bob Scholes played internationally as a renowned climate scientist, warning of the climate emergency long before others recognized the urgency of the situation. Now that the crisis is worse than ever, we will remember and advocate for scientific evidence and action.” Read the tribute [PDF] by the Executive Committee and Board of the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF).

Funding acknowledgement

Throughout his life, Professor Bob Scholes received numerous awards, contributed to many global change activities and was also the recipient of extensive funding. There are very many, for which the University and his research community are very grateful.
These are some examples of his research funding received and engagement with international and national bodies, some of whom also provide funding:

Global Change Institute linked funding

  • The Carnegie Corporation of New York
  • The Robert Bosch Foundation
  • Exxaro

National Funding

  • NRF National Research Foundation
  • Department of Science and Innovation
  • South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON)
  • Various Government Departments: national, provincial, municipal

Global Change Platforms/Committees

  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
  • Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES)
  • Belmont Forum
  • Global Climate Observing System (GCOS)
  • Global Terrestrial Observing System (GTOS)

Examples of other international funding                                                            

  • European Commission (EC) Horizon 2020
  • US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • US National Science Foundation (NSF)