Reginald Rose-Innes, who has died aged 96, was a grassland ecologist; for most of his working life he combed some of Africa’s most arid landscapes for specimens of grass, on one such expedition having to subsist on what little food he could gather or kill.
He was born on February 28 1915 near Bonza Bay, East London, South Africa, the son of Albert Rose-Innes, a noted cricketer in his younger days who had played twice for South Africa against England in 1889; a slow left-arm bowler, in the Test at Port Elizabeth Albert took five wickets for 43 in England’s first innings. Having failed to recover from a serious wound suffered in the Boer War, however, he retired early from his job in a shipping office, and with his wife, Margaret, went to live in a pair of adjoining rondavel mud huts overlooking the mouth of the Quinera river at Bonza Bay.
It was there that their son Reggie, an only child, was brought up. On the high sand dunes overlooking Bonza Bay, Albert taught his son how to use a rifle, and the boy became a superb marksman. He was sent as a boarder to Grey’s High School in Port Elizabeth, then went on to study Botany at Rhodes University in Grahamstown .
At the start of the Second World War, Rose-Innes went to the University of Texas at Austin. He returned home in 1943 to enlist in the South African Navy, serving as a gunner aboard the cruiser Newcastle. His war was relatively uneventful, spent mostly patrolling the Indian Ocean.
After being demobbed, Rose-Innes was invited by the University of Witwatersand (Wits) in Johannesburg to join a research team investigating outbreaks of bubonic plague in Namibia. As the team’s resident botanist, he flew with his colleagues to a remote airstrip in the Namib Desert. For months the small group of scientists lived under canvas, and, relying on mules for their transport, undertook a series of gruelling missions collecting fleas from the rats and rodents that carried the disease. On one such expedition, Rose-Innes discovered a new species of flea, which was later named after him.
With little backup and no fresh provisions, the small group of scientists had to rely on Rose-Innes’s marksmanship to kill enough wildlife to feed them. Often they dried raw fillets of freshly killed buck on thorn bushes in the desert.
In 1946 Rose-Innes married Jasmine Gordon-Forbes, whom he had first met when they were fellow students at Rhodes University, where she was studying Fine Art. Their son, Crispin, was born in Johannesburg in 1949 and christened by Bishop Trevor Huddleston in a black township. Both Rose-Innes and his wife were fierce opponents of apartheid (Jasmine had been active in the white women’s movement known as the Black Sash), and in 1954 they decided to leave South Africa.
Their next home was the Gold Coast, where Rose-Innes was offered a job as a grassland ecologist at the University College of the Gold Coast. They settled at Achimota, near Accra, and in December that year Jasmine gave birth to their daughter, Joanna.
On March 6 1957 the Gold Coast became the first British colony to gain independence and emerged on to the world stage as Ghana. Over the following years Rose-Innes travelled throughout the country, patiently collecting and recording all the wild grasses he could find.
These eventually led to a complete inventory , and his book A Manual of Ghana Grasses (1977).
Specimens of his unusual finds were periodically sent to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where they remain archived in the Rose-Innes Collection. (In 2009 he would also present Kew with seven large boxes containing personal papers and correspondence, research notebooks, reports and photographs.)
Ghana’s President, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, took a personal interest in Rose-Innes’s work, and he was given his own department of animal husbandry within the Department of Agriculture at the University of Ghana – a position he held until 1967.
Later Rose-Innes was employed by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN, for which he undertook research in northern Ghana and Nigeria.
At the end of the 1960s Rose-Innes moved to England, where he worked for the Ministry of Overseas Development on research programmes in the Third World. Although based in London, he spent much of his time in Bangladesh, Nigeria, British Honduras (Belize) and Somalia.
After retiring to Sussex, Rose-Innes indulged his lifelong passion for sailing. At the age of 91, he featured on the local BBC news after he set a new British record by becoming the oldest person to fly tandem on a paraglider.
His wife Jasmine wrote an acclaimed autobiography, Writing in the Dust (1968), which won a Heinemann Award. She died in 1998 , and he is survived by their son and daughter.
Reginald Rose-Innes, born February 28 1915, died January 16 2012
Source: The Telegraph, 27 February 2012