S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Skaife, Dr Sydney Harold (entomology)

Born: 12 December 1889, London, United Kingdom.
Died: 6 November 1976, Hout Bay, Western Cape, South Africa.
Active in: SA.

Sydney Harold ('Stacey') Skaife, entomologist and author, studied arts at Reading University College, England, and continued his studies at the University of Leipzig, Germany, where he qualified as a teacher. He came to South Africa in 1913 and taught biology at the Rondebosch Boys High School. Immediately upon his arrival he started studying through the University of the Cape of Good Hope, passing the intermediate examination for the BA degree in 1913. During 1915 he was enrolled as a student at the South African College, Cape Town, and in 1916 was awarded the BA degree with honours in zoology by the University of the Cape of Good Hope. In 1916 C.P. Lounsbury*, who had attended a lecture by Skaife on 'Insect wonders', offered him a position as assistant entomologist in the Division of Entomology of the Cape Department of Agriculture and during the rest of World War I (1914-1918) he worked at the Government Experimental Station at Rosebank under C.W. Mally*, where he studied pea and bean weevils in stored food products. This work was reported in his first scientific paper, published in Bulletin No. 12 (1918) of the Department of Agriculture. In 1919 he was transferred to the Cedara College of Agriculture near Howick, Natal, succeeding E.S. Cogan* as entomologist. There he worked on the wattle bagworm, and established an apiary to study bees.

At this time Skaife also studied beetles of the family Bruchidae (seed weevils) under Professor Ernest Warren* of the Natal University College and in 1920 was awarded the MSc degree in zoology (by the University of South Africa) for his thesis Studies of the Bruchidae, with special reference to South African species. Two years later he received a PhD degree in zoology from the University of Cape Town for a thesis entitled Monograph on the Bruchidae of South Africa and additional papers. He became interested in tsetse fly control because of the large scale killing of game carried out in KwaZulu-Natal in an unsuccessful attempt to control nagana, which was transmitted by the flies. As an ardent conservationist he was one of the founders of the Cape branch of the Wild Life Protection Society (which later became the Wild Life Society of Southern Africa) in 1929 and as chairman of the branch played an important role in the establishment of the Outeniqua Mountain Zebra Reserve, the Bontebok Park, and the Addo Elephant Reserve. His efforts to preserve Cape Point as a nature reserve finally bore fruit in 1939 when the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve was established.

Meanwhile he had joined the Cape Department of Education as an inspector of science and agriculture in January 1921, a position he held until his retirement in 1945. His main task was to introduce the teaching of biology in high schools, a task he carried out against stiff opposition from parents who feared that biology dealt largely with sex and evolution and was therefore unsuitable as a school subject. After his retirement he served as chairman of the newly established Fisheries Development Corporation until 1951, when he retired to Hout Bay and continued his research on insects in his home laboratory.

Skaife published some 20 scientific books and textbooks on zoological subjects, including Animal life in South Africa (1920), An elementary biology for use in South African schools (1922), The outdoor world (1948), African insect life (1953; revised ed. 1979), Dwellers in darkness: An introduction to the study of termites (1955), The study of ants (1961), and A naturalist remembers (an autobiography, 1963). He was the editor of the journal Nature News from 1924 to 1931 and published papers on button spiders, the locust fungus, parasites of honey bees, the Argentine ant and other insect pests. During the first half of the nineteen-twenties he published several papers on the fungi he found on insects. Most of his scientific papers were published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa (from 1921), the South African Journal of Science (from 1920), and publications of the Department of Agriculture.

Skaife served as president of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1948 and received its South Africa Medal (gold) in 1952. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1938 and later served as its president. He was a foundation member of the Entomological Society of South Africa in 1937, served as vice-president many times during 1943-1968, and as president for 1951/2 and 1960/1. He was president of the Zoological Society of South Africa in 1960. In 1959 he was awarded the Senior Captain Scott Memorial Medal of the South African Biological Society, having been a member since its formation in 1916. In the early nineteen-thirties he was a member of the Cape Natural History Club and club consultant for economic and medical entomology. From 1943 he was one of the trustees of the South African Museum, representing the Royal Society of South Africa, serving as vice-chairman of the Board of Trustees in 1961. In 1957 the University of Natal awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) degree.

Skaife wrote a series of seven detective novels between 1924 and 1960, using the pseudonym Hendrik Brand. All these books were translated into Afrikaans and proved very popular. He also wrote some popular children's books. From 1935 to 1945 he was the director of the School Broadcasting Service and from 1948 to 1951 a member of the Board of Governors of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. In September 1917 he married the pianist Elsie Mary Croft, with whom he had a son and a daughter. He was a man of many intellectual gifts and forceful personality; of restless energy and driving purpose; of great charm and a gentle, rather dry sense of humour (Rowan, 1979, p. 11).

List of sources:

The Cape Naturalist, 1934, Vol. 1(1), pp. 25-28, Club Consultants and Club Roll.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 5, 1987.

Doidge, E.M. The South African fungi and lichens to the end of 1945. Bothalia, 1950, Vol. 5, pp. 1-1094 (see p. 41).

Lounsbury, C.P. The pioneer period of economic entomology in South Africa. Journal of the Entomological Society of South Africa, 1940, Vol. 3, pp. 9-29.

Mansell, M.W. The Entomological Society of Southern Africa, a historical review. African Entomology, 1993, Vol. 1(1), pp. 109-120.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS), at http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to S.H. Skaife.

Obituary: Sydney Harold Skaife. Journal of the Entomological Society of South Africa, 1977, Vol. 40(1), pp. 123-125.

Ritchie, W. The history of the South African College, 1829-1918. Cape Town: T. Maskew Miller, 1918.

Rowan, M.K. Biography of Dr S.H. Skaife. In S.H. Skaife, African insect life (2nd ed., pp. 8-11). Cape Town: Struik, 1979.

Senior Captain Scott Medal. South African Biological Society Pamphlet No. 21, 1959, pp. 36-37.

Smithers, R.H.N. Recollections of some great naturalists. Transvaal Museum Bulletin, No. 20, 1984, pp. 5-15.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African Journal of Natural History, 1918, Vol. 1(1), pp. 8-15: Roll of Foundation Members [of the South African Biological Society].

South African Journal of Science, 1920-1939, papers by Skaife.

South African who's who, 1936, 1939

Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Summers, R.F.H. A history of the South African Museum, 1825-1975. Cape Town: Balkema, 1975.

Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 1921-1939, papers by Skaife.

Union Catalogue of theses and dissertations of South African Universities. Microfiche copy, University of South Africa.

University of the Cape of Good Hope. Calendar, 1914/5, 1916/7, 1917/8.

Compiled by: C. Plug

Last updated: 2020-10-22 11:46:37