Michael Majerus, 1954-2009

February 26, 2009

Michael Majerus, world-renowned entomologist and advocate of evolutionary theory, has died.

He was born in London on 13 February 1954 and educated at Merchant Taylors' School and Royal Holloway College, where he produced a PhD on moth colouration.

After a short period at the University of Keele, in 1980 he took up a position at the University of Cambridge's department of genetics. He rose through the ranks to become a teaching fellow at Clare College, a lecturer, reader and eventually professor of evolution in 2006.

A tireless field naturalist who roamed the world on collecting expeditions, Professor Majerus was also a doughty defender of Darwinism.

The peppered moth, Biston betularia, has long been cited as a dramatic example of natural selection in action, since its lighter and darker forms suffer differential rates of predation in polluted and unpolluted woodland.

When this classic case was disputed by Judith Hooper, an American journalist, in her book Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy and the Peppered Moth (2002), Professor Majerus repeated and refined research into Biston over a seven-year period, bolstering the original conclusions.

In a recent lecture, he restated the case and proudly described how he had acquired his feel for the organism: "I caught my first butterfly when I was four. I learnt the basics of Mendelian genetics when I was ten ... I have run one or more moth traps almost nightly for 40 years. As far as I'm aware, I have found more peppered moths ... in their natural resting position than any other person alive."

Along with major research on sexual selection and male-killing bacteria in ladybirds, Professor Majerus also managed, through frequent media appearances, to engage the public in recording the distribution of the newly arrived harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis) across the UK.

Much loved by students, he was equally keen to enthuse children and other non-specialists with his scientific passions, and he became president of the Amateur Entomologists' Society in 2005. His books Ladybirds (1994) and Moths (2002) appeared in the Collins New Naturalist series.

Remy Ware, research fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge, recalls that "even when at home, he would be doing something entomological: pinning and setting his butterflies, putting out his moth trap, or making his garden insect-friendly. It is not often you meet someone whose love of life is so apparent.

"Mike leaves a lasting legacy ... not only in terms of the valid scientific contributions he made, but also in teaching and mentoring the evolutionary biologists of tomorrow."

Professor Majerus died on January and is survived by his wife, Christina, two sons and a daughter.


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