Inaugural Lecture: Professor William Nolan (Fred) Ellery

24 April 2013

Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Heads of Department, colleagues, students, family and friends of Prof Ellery, ladies and gentlemen - molweni, good evening, welcome.

The University Calendar lists all the current full professors of Rhodes University. Professor Fred Ellery, who is also the Head of the Department of Environmental Science, is one of the more recent entries on this list.

This evening, as is our tradition, we have the presentation of the Inaugural Lecture that follows the University conferring the status of full professor on an academic.

It is an evening on which as academic peers, colleagues, students, family, friends, and the public we celebrate the intellectual and scholarly achievements of one of our professors.

Fred Ellery was born in Johannesburg in 1957 but his family moved to Standerton, a small town in our current Mpumalanga Province, where he spent most of his early childhood. His friends were farmers’ children and as Fred loved the outdoors he spent much time in the veld. He was convinced he would find an item of treasure, perhaps even a large diamond, and set himself up financially for life. He still hopes for this.

He was described by his teachers as likeable, polite and good-mannered, but inattentive and dreamy in the classroom. He was also described as extremely untidy and disorganised, and was repeatedly punished for submitting messy work that was not legible.

Before entering high school, a terminal illness led to prolonged hospitalisation and the death of his older brother by a year. Soon after this the Ellery family moved back to Johannesburg and within two years of the move Fred became a scholar at Bryanston High School. At high school Fred lived for sport and played cricket and hockey, captaining the first hockey team for his two final years at school.

Upon leaving school Fred went to the USA on a student exchange programme, and he lived with a family in North Carolina for a year. This was at a time when South Africa was under increasing international pressure to change its policies, and his time in the USA radically changed his views on apartheid from someone who knew relatively little about politics and took little interest in it, to someone who witnessed some of the horrors of apartheid from abroad.

He was in the USA on June 16, 1976 and was shocked by the events back home. His was one of the last South African groups to participate in the American Field Service Exchange Program, a consequence of increasing isolation by the international community.

On his return home, Fred studied Botany and Geology at Wits University, and loved what the University environment had to offer. From early on he knew he wanted to be an ecologist, and after completing his undergraduate degree in 1979 he worked at the Oceanographic Research Institute in Durban.

Whilst at the Institute he published his first paper and discovered the excitement of doing research that led to publication. He then went back to Wits – partly to be close to a girlfriend at the time, and partly to do an Honours Degree.

The girlfriend did not last long, but during the year he met Karen, who he was to marry the following May.  Also in the class were a number of his current colleagues – Charlie and Sheona Shackleton, and Nigel Barker. Martin Villet was also a peer, doing an Honours Degree in Zoology.

Following their Honours Degrees in 1984, Fred and Karen were offered the opportunity to study for their Masters in the Okavango Delta, examining questions that they were really quite ill-prepared to deal with:

  • Fred examined the role of the giant sedge Cyperus papyrus in causing radical changes in flow in the Delta over time periods of centuries; and
  • Karen examined vegetation succession in newly flooded areas associated with these radical changes in flow.

Fred’s study turned out to be a lemon – papyrus played an insignificant role in changing flow patterns in the Delta. Karen’s study was far more convincing – she documented a series of surprising processes associated with vegetation succession in newly flooded wetlands as a consequence of changing flow patterns. 

During this time Fred and Karen lived in a tent on a remote island in the Okavango for 18 months, travelling to Maun once every six weeks for supplies.  There were stretches where they would not encounter another person for six weeks at a time. 

Following the completion of his Masters degree in 1988, Fred embarked on a study of South Africa’s Grassland Biome for his PhD, in which he documented the role of climate and fire as major determinants of grassland distribution, structure and function.

Fred was able to explain how climate controlled fire frequency and also how climate and fire influenced nutrient supply and therefore grass forage quality.  The sweet and sour grassland issue, which had long perplexed grassland ecologists, was far better understood in the light of Fred’s PhD.

After this Fred returned to his interest in the Earth Sciences and spent 1993 and 1994 in the Geology Department at Wits, working with Terence McCarthy and other international scientists such as the world renowned geomorphologist Norman Smith (University of Nebraska) and ecologist Brian Walker (CSIRO, Australia), on understanding the structure and functioning of the Okavango Delta.

Terence McCarthy and Fred have worked together for about 25 years and jointly produced almost 40 peer-reviewed publications as co-authors. Fred has worked as part of a team involving numerous leading international and local scholars including Annika Dahlberg (University of Stockholm), Mark Dangerfield (Macquarrie University), Michael Garstang (University of Virginia), Ambrose Gieske (University of Botswana), Heinz Rutter (UCT), Bob Scholes (CSIR South Africa), Stephen Tooth (University of Wales), Robert Swap (University of Virginia), Peter Tyson (Wits University) and Arnold van der Valk (University of Iowa).

Multidisciplinary teams of scholars working in the field of landscape and wetland geomorphology have produced ground-breaking results, and these collaborations have strongly influenced the way Fred thinks about science and landscapes.

During his postdoctoral appointment, Steven was born, and for mainly financial reasons Fred quit work and looked after Steven while Karen kept the family solvent.

In June 1994, within a year of Steven’s birth, Fred was offered a Lecturer’s post in the Geography Department at the University of Natal in Durban. This was a move that once again shaped the way that Fred saw the world.

Social and economic factors were as important to consider as the biophysical aspects of environmental management. During this period Fred interacted with leading South African scholars in the field of understanding the social and economic dimensions of sustainability.

He found the Geography Department at the University of Natal to be a collaborative environment where staff shared a common vision of supporting good teaching, research and practice. During his tenure there, Fred started work on understanding the structure and function of wetlands in northern KwaZulu-Natal, and many of the ideas that were believed to make the Okavango Delta unique, were in fact found to apply in these wetlands as well.

Shortly after their move to KwaZulu-Natal, Karen and Fred produced a field guide to the plants of the Okavango Delta, which sold about 2000 copies.  For a book of this kind it was a bestseller.

In 1997 Fred was promoted to Senior Lecturer and two years later to Associate Professor. His time at the University of Natal was very productive, particularly in respect of postgraduate supervision and publication. During his 15 year stay there, a total of 26 Masters students and five PhD students graduated having worked with Fred. He also supervised an average of four Honours students a year.

Fred was awarded funding by the Water Research Commission and Working for Wetlands over the period from 2004 to 2006 to undertake research that would support wetland rehabilitation in South Africa.

This was a massive research programme that involved most universities in South Africa and led to the training of 10 Masters and four PhD graduates across the country. As a part of this programme, Fred coordinated the research and production of 11 manuals that are used to support the work of Working for Wetlands.

As the WRC/Working for Wetlands research programme drew to a close, the University of Natal merged with the University of Durban-Westville. 

Fred left with a plan to consult for the rest of his working life. Fortunately, as he really is an academic at heart, soon after his resignation from UKZN, the job of Associate Professor in Environmental Science at Rhodes was advertised and in 2008 Fred made what he and his family describe as the best move of his life.

Small-town life suits them, and Fred is passionate about Rhodes where the individual student matters and there is an emphasis on research and community engagement. 

The move to Rhodes has also seen him team up with one of South Africa’s leading geomorphologists, Kate Rowntree, who has sent apologies as she is unable to be here this evening.

Fred has recently won two prestigious awards. He received lifelong membership of the International Mire Conservation Group at their annual meeting in Warsaw in 2010. The award was made in recognition of research and teaching in the field of mires, a type of wetland in which peat forms. 

Last year, he was awarded the Mondi Wetland Award for his contribution to research on South Africa’s wetlands.

Fred has presented papers at national and international conferences and fora, including keynote and invited papers. He has presented keynote papers at the Southern African Society of Aquatic Scientists on two occasions, and invited papers have been presented at the International Society of Ecologists on three occasions – one in Utrecht in The Netherlands, another in Quebec in Canada and most recently in Gainesville, Florida in the USA.

Fred is an Associate Editor on the International Journal Mires and Peat, and also of the African Journal of Aquatic Sciences. He regularly reviews manuscripts for local and international journals and has given invited papers at meetings in South Africa and abroad.

He is well recognised in his field and is repeatedly invited to participate in research programmes by leading international scholars. The most recent invitation by Professor Curtis Marean of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, is to examine the role of wetlands in human cultural evolution along the southern Cape coastline over at least the last 75 000 years

Sitting on an NRF panel to rate scientists in his field between 2003 and 2005 gave Fred insight into the rating process. Despite prior misgivings about the rating process, Fred now views the process as robust and transparent. In addition to undertaking frequent reviews of NRF rating applications, Fred’s expertise in wetlands makes him a valued member of several WRC Steering Committees.

He is also passionate about advancing public understanding of science and is often invited to give public lectures on his work. He was involved in the first ever Science Faculty Deans Lecture at Wits University involving more than one Department. He has presented about 50 public lectures to a range of audiences, and has built a following for communicating fairly complex ideas in a way that can be widely understood. 

Given his expertise, Fred is widely called on to participate in applied studies and has been active in well over 80 such studies related to environmental impacts of proposed developments, management of conservation areas and wetland biodiversity and conservation.

He also freely comments on studies where his expertise has relevance in the hope of helping to making a difference. He has participated in some of southern Africa’s most controversial environmental studies, including a proposal by the Namibian Department of Water Affairs to abstract water from the Okavango River to augment Windhoek’s water supply. He also participated in a study examining the environmental impacts of a proposed hydro-electric power plant on the Okavango River in Namibia.

Most recently, and not as a member of the consulting team, Fred has commented extensively on the proposed Thyspunt Nuclear Power Plant on the coastline between Oyster Bay and Cape St Francis. The ability to comment on this arose quite unexpectedly through research being done there with a Masters student, Lauren Elkington, who has just graduated with distinction.

Fred is a member of the Southern African Society of Aquatic Scientists, the South African Institute of Ecologists and Environmental Scientists and the Society of Wetland Scientists. He has recently been involved in the establishment of a professional body representing the interests of wetland scientists (the South African Society of Wetland Scientists) and was asked to be its founding president.

He has been the president of the South African Chapter of the International Mire Conservation Group and is currently involved in discussions to start a South African Chapter of the Society of Ecological Restoration. He views this as an important initiative given the global collapse of ecosystems and the threats that this poses to human well-being and even global security.

One of his greatest local claims to fame is his involvement in the Rhodes University Green Fund. He currently convenes the Green Fund Working Group of the Rhodes University Environmental Committee – a role that he has adopted with enthusiasm in the hope of building a more sustainable campus.

A major activity he organises with a phenomenal team of colleagues, is the Green Fund Run. This year, the largest Fun Run ever in Grahamstown was organised in the hope of raising awareness and fundraising in support of environmental matters at Rhodes.

Fred is firmly of the view that the legacy that academics leave does not rest in the number of papers that are written, but rather with the academic quality of these papers and the postgraduate training that is done. He has produced approximately 90 peer reviewed papers, eight chapters in books and five research reports. Over 30 postgraduate students have worked with him.

He delights in knowing that many former students are resident at leading universities and in private practice, making contributions to the economy and the environment in different parts of the world.

Through his work Fred feels that one of his most important contributions is to change how young people see the world and conduct their affairs.  Theirs are the only voices that speak on behalf of the environment and those who have been marginalised from the formal economy.

The allegiance of environmental practitioners is to their data and ideas. He is of the view that decision-makers are persuaded by good ideas, and that it is possible to substantially influence the outcome of planned developments on environmental grounds. 

In conclusion, Fred firmly believes that good science should contribute to good decision-making. Although his career is far from over, he recognises that bright young minds are being groomed to manage a future that is increasingly complex and requires novel approaches.

He is optimistic that the next generation of scientists and practitioners will manage these challenges given the stimulation that they receive as part of their training at Rhodes and elsewhere.

It is my great pleasure to invite Professor Fred Ellery to address us. His lecture this evening is titled The landscape holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask: Perspectives of an environmental scientist.

Last Modified: Mon, 17 Nov 2014 11:17:54 SAST