Scientist wins achievement award

Professor Michael Bruton with his book, What a GreatIdea! subtitled “Awesome South African Inventions”.

A Rondebosch scientist known for his study of the coelacanth, a “living fossil” fish, has won a prestigious award.

The coelacanth was thought to have gone extinct some 66 million years ago when the dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. That was until 1938, when East London Museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discovered a specimen in a fisherman’s catch.

The ancient fish has been one of many topics of study for Professor Michael Bruton, 74, who has been given the Marloth Medal by the Royal Society of South Africa (RSSA).

“Professor Michael Bruton’s career epitomises the ethos of Hermann Marloth’s varied life achievements as embodied in this medal,” said Professor Stephanie Burton, the society’s president.

The award was made on Thursday November 26. Professor Bruton has been notified about it, but he has yet to receive it in person.

This is likely to happen at a banquet – the date for which has yet to be confirmed – next year.

The Marloth Medal is a rare lifetime achievement honour sought after by members of the country’s premier network of scientists.

It is named after Professor Hermann Wilhelm Rudolf Marloth – a German-born South African botanist and chemist, best known for his Flora of South Africa which appeared in six illustrated volumes between 1913 and 1932 – and his son, the pomologist, Dr Raimund Hilmar Marloth.

“Both father and son were fellows of the society and left generous bequests that enabled the society to continue awarding the medal,” Professor Burton said.

Professor Bruton has been a member of the RSSA since 1978 and was elected a fellow of the society in 1984.

“The Marloth Medal is awarded for overall contributions to science in the fields of academic research, science promotion, teaching and lecturing, administration, and the popularisation of science, so I am grateful to the society for the award,” he said.

He has worked for 50 years as a professional ichthyologist, a fish researcher.

“I enjoyed the opportunity to work in beautiful, wild places and to unravel the life histories of fishes that were previously unknown,” he said.

He has studied the life-histories of freshwater and marine fish.

“The main freshwater fishes that I have studied include the tilapias and freshwater catfishes and the main marine fish that I have studied is the coelacanth.”

Professor Bruton at Rhodes University in 1976.

His research has taken him to the Natural History Museum in London and museums elsewhere in Europe. He has also made research visits to Israel, Canada, America, Taiwan, Australia and Japan.

Over the years, he has authored and edited 29 books.

His most recent were Curator and Crusader: The life and work of Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, in 2019; The Fishy Smiths: A biography of JLB and Margaret Smith, in 2018; and What a Great Idea!

Awesome South African Inventions, in 2018.

Professor Burton said the medal recognised Professor Bruton’s lifelong contribution to academic science and the public understanding of science.

“The breadth of Professor Bruton’s academic and public career in the communication of science is remarkable and rare,” she said.

Professor Bruton is currently working on a book that explores his “bizarre” experiences as a science educator in the Middle East.

Another book, about the Human Sciences Research Council and innovation in Africa, is expected to be published in July next year.

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