“Prof Denis Murphy: The zoologist extraordinaire”

In the Straits Times today, “What’s in a name? A scientific legacy,” by Shobana Kesava.
From insects to diseases, surgical methods to mathematical theories, global scientific discoveries and developments bear the names of local researchers. Shobana Kesava speaks to some such pioneers.

PROF DENNIS MURPHY: The zoologist extraordinaire

SINGAPORE’S first, and longest-serving, zoologist has had over 100 species of animals named after him, local biologists estimate.

The man himself, Professor Dennis H. Murphy, has lost count.

Having a new discovery named after you is an honour bestowed on scientists who have made an enormous contribution to the field.

Prof Murphy, 77, named none of the animals – ranging from sea slugs to insects and arthropods – himself. Other scientists did, after they discovered his finds were new.

A British citizen who moved here in 1960, he never bothered to write a doctoral thesis. But his wealth of expertise led to him being made an associate professor in 1983 at the then-University of Malaya and later the National University of Singapore (NUS).

He retired after 31 years in 1991. Recognised as one of the most outstanding insect taxonomists in the region, however, he still serves as a consultant to the Government and companies in the identification of medical, forestry, agricultural and stored-product pests.

Interviewed by The Straits Times recently at his Bukit Timah home, he was dressed in his usual house attire of T-shirt and sarong, with a white ‘Good Morning’ tea towel draped across the back of his neck. The only thing not local about Prof Murphy, a permanent resident of 40 years, is his British accent and blue eyes.

He admits that scientists as far afield as Finland and Papua New Guinea have been tapping his expertise in both small plants and animal species for decades.

His hands shake as he lights his bidi. ‘It’s cheap’, he explains of the small but potent rolled cigarette he buys on Chander Road in Little India. But his sense of humour, like his mind, remains razor sharp.

Speaking as a scientist and a Buddhist, he says: ‘I expect by the law of probability to come back in my next life as a bacterium, as it is the world’s most common life form.’

Currently, he is the adviser on a climate change survey being carried out by the National Parks Board, helping NUS students make a complete list of fauna in the central catchment area. Data will be compared to his lists submitted in the 1990s.

Of his own volition, Prof Murphy has also created a full topographical map of the area. The information will help researchers understand how climate change has affected Singapore’s biodiversity.

For his work, Prof Murphy was last month affectionately conferred the title ‘King of the Mangroves’ by Singapore’s top zoologists, at the launch of the Singapore Red Data Book, a classification of endangered plants and animals on the island.

Professor Peter Ng, head of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research at NUS and Prof Murphy’s former doctoral student, is one of his many fans.

‘His impact was great because he provided a wealth of information on the animals’ behaviour and ecology which gave experts vital information for analysis,’ says Prof Ng.

‘He loved the detail, the underdog, the things no one else noticed. He felt that just because they weren’t noticed, it didn’t mean they weren’t important.’

Prof Murphy feels his greatest discovery is one named not after him, but his wife, who died last year.

The Pseudanurida yini is a 1mm-long insect. Following its generic Latin name is a name incorporating that of his Hokkien Singaporean spouse, Yin. The couple met as researchers in Africa, while both were working with the medical research council of Gambia in the late 1950s.

To those who aspire to be outstanding researchers, Prof Murphy says: ‘You just have to like people. You will be thought of, and things will just happen for you.’

skesava@sph.com.sg

Plethora of ‘murphy’ bugs

  • Halobates murphyi – Water-Striders sea skater
  • Boreioglycaspis murphyi – Insect psyllid (Hemiptera – bug)
  • Chirolavia murphyi
    – Neanurini elongate-bodied springtail
  • Belaphopsocus murphyi – Insect (Sentosa, Singapore) liposcelid booklice
  • Linoglossa murphyi – Beetle (Mandai Kechil, Singapore) staphylinid beetle
  • Salduncula murphyi – Insect (Labrador Park, Singapore) shore bug
  • Murphydoris singaporensis – Nudibranch goniodorid slug
  • Pseudanurida yini – 1mm long blue-black intertidal species of insect found on tropical shores in Singapore and Malaysia, named after Prof Murphy’s wife
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2 thoughts on ““Prof Denis Murphy: The zoologist extraordinaire”

  1. Angus Murdoch and Ted Baldry I wish to make contact with Denis, we were students together at Durham Univeristy.
    Ted celebrated his Golden wedding anniversary on 6th June and Angus on 28th August. WE would like to hear from Denis, his e-mail address would be useful.

    Ted Baldry

  2. Hi
    Could you provide a contact for Dennis? We were at Durham together. It would be nice to get together while still can

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