Rhodes University alumnus receives prestigious Royal Society medal

Rhodes University alumnus, Professor Michael Bruton.
Rhodes University alumnus, Professor Michael Bruton.

Rhodes University alumni continue flying the University flag higher and higher across the globe. They are a true embodiment of the University’s motto, “Where leaders learn” as they continue to show outstanding leadership qualities. One such alumnus is Professor Michael Bruton.

The Royal Society of South Africa recently awarded Prof Bruton the Marloth Medal for his lifetime contributions to science. This medal was first awarded to coelacanth discoverer, Professor JLB Smith, in 1946, and has now been awarded to his biographer, Professor Bruton. 

The Marloth Medal is the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, a rare honour and highly sought-after by scientists belonging to the Royal Society of South Africa, the country’s premier network of scientists.

Making the announcement, the President of the Royal Society, Professor Stephanie Burton, said: “Professor Michael Bruton’s career epitomises the ethos of Herman Marloth’s varied life achievements as embodied in this medal. It is only awarded in honour of highly distinguished individuals who have given exemplary service to science, nurturing younger professionals, and fostering the public understanding of science”.

She added: ‘’By awarding this medal, the Society wishes to celebrate the pioneering contributions of the botanist Hermann Wilhelm Rudolf Marloth, born in 1855, and his son Raimund, born in 1904. Both father and son were Fellows of the Society and left generous bequests that enable the Society to continue awarding the medal.”

Prof Bruton said this award means a lot to him, especially this late in his life when he thought that his contributions had been forgotten. “I feel very humbled by the award, as there are so many great scientists out there. I do believe that the balance that I have tried to achieve between academic research, teaching, research administration, and the popularisation of science, has made my career slightly different from that of many other scientists. To me, the most important point is to remain curious and inquisitive, and I have found that, as I grow older, I have become more curious. Fortunately, I have remained healthy enough to continue to be active in science and science education,” he said.

Prof Bruton studied at Rhodes University for his Bachelor of Science between 1966 and 1968, majoring in Zoology and Entomology. During his Honours year in 1969 he studied lizards, and he then completed his Masters and PhD studying freshwater fishes from Rhodes University’s Lake Sibaya Research Station in northern Zululand. In 2001, he received the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ from the South African National Science & Technology Forum, and in 2012 he was awarded a Doctor of Science (DSc) honoris causa by Rhodes University for his services to science.

His career initially focused on ichthyology and aquatic ecology but later broadened into a study of the life-history strategies of animals. He was the first Head of the Department of Ichthyology & Fisheries Science at Rhodes University and then took over from Professor Margaret Smith as the Director of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology (now the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, SAIAB) in Makhanda. He was later appointed as the Head of Education at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town where he developed the education and public awareness programmes. He was the founding Director of what is now the Cape Town Science Centre and later  served as the founding Director of the Bahrain Science Centre and as advisor to the Director of the Museum of Science & Technology in Islam at the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia.

The 74-year old Professor, who celebrated his birthday on 30th November, is now actively involved in writing popular science books. He has published eight books in the last five years and has a book on African innovation in press. “I am currently writing another book on my sometimes bizarre experiences teaching science in the Middle East (Dubai, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia) and have other books on African inventors planned after that. I have also recently published scientific papers and chapters in e-books on coelacanths in South Africa and Madagascar and have a paper in preparation on coelacanths in Tanzania. I also give many popular science talks, and I am the chairman of the scientific advisory committee of Scifest Africa, the National Science Festival, which is based in Makhanda. I also serve on the Board of the Cape Town Science Centre and the Council of the Royal Society of South Africa.  I am hoping to have the opportunity to travel to Madagascar soon to investigate coelacanths there,” he concluded.

Prof Bruton has lectured at universities, science centres and museums throughout Africa and in Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australasia. He has supervised the research of over 40 postgraduate students and acted as an external examiner for African, European, Australian and American universities. He is married to Carolynn, and they have three children, Craig, Ryan and Tracey. His hobbies include hiking, cycling, gardening, and nurturing his ecopool and beehive.