Distinguished NZ Ecologist
By CREAN, Mike
From primers to post-graduate students, George Knox taught at every level of formal education in New Zealand. But the University of Canterbury Emeritus Professor of Zoology was most acclaimed for his research. His books, articles and scientific papers contributed significantly to knowledge of marine biology.
Friend and colleague Sir Martin Holdgate, a Cambridge University don and former Deputy Secretary in Britain’s Department of the Environment, says Knox was “highly regarded in international ecological circles”, especially for his work in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean.
War service was Knox’s only prolonged absence from Canterbury. However, often abroad on research expeditions, he was nicknamed Tarmac George for his frequent drives to the airport. He died in Christchurch recently, aged 88.
Knox received a host of honours and appointments to leading positions in research organisations. He was awarded the MBE in 1985 and the CNZM in 2001.
Growing up at Pleasant Point, South Canterbury, he attended the district high school. He studied for an arts degree at Canterbury University while training as a teacher, in 1936-38.
He married Dorothy Morris in 1941 and they had five children. His wife died in 1996.
After service with an anti-aircraft battery in the Middle East in World War 2, he resumed primary teaching before switching to secondary, at Christ’s College, while completing arts and science degrees. He graduated MSc in 1949 and was appointed assistant lecturer in zoology at Canterbury University. He became professor and head of department in 1959 and retired from the university in 1984.
Knox was at the forefront of Antarctic research for half a century. He fostered, then directed, the university’s Antarctic Research Unit and took part in 10 field expeditions with it. He worked with the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and became a member of its biology working party. He was later secretary, and then president, of SCAR. He was secretary- general and president of the International Association for Ecology.
Holdgate says Knox contributed much to changing scientific understanding of the remote marine environments of Chile and the Southern Ocean. He led New Zealand’s contingent on a “ground- breaking” international expedition there, in 1958-59, with Holdgate. Using a small boat and diving in a dry suit, with a snorkel, he made findings which he recorded in “a major scientific paper”.
Holdgate and Knox later worked together in the Antarctic, where Knox made three further trips and led marine research from Scott Base.
In 1990, Knox chaired a workshop that finalised the text of the Antarctic Conservation Strategy, prepared by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
New Zealand’s estuarine and coastal ecologies, including Christchurch’s Avon-Heathcote Estuary and the marshes of Marlborough’s Pelorous Sound, were another strong interest. He developed Canterbury University’s research station at Kaikoura, where the laboratory was named after him.
He initiated and drove the Joint Centre for Environmental Studies, which promoted co-operation across faculties at Canterbury and Lincoln universities and established a masters degree in resource management. He was a member of Lincoln’s professorial board at this time.
His research around New Zealand, the Chatham and Sub-Antarctic islands raised Knox’s concern for the environment and he became an early conservationist. He co-founded the Christchurch Environment Centre, was a director of the Environmental Defence Society and chairman of the 1979 Environmental Conference. He served on government and United Nations advisory councils.
Knox was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of NZ in 1963. He was awarded visiting professorships, research fellowships and memberships of science organisations in several countries.
His Biology of the Southern Ocean has become a standard reference book.
George Alexander Knox, born Pleasant Point, December 16, 1919; died Christchurch, August 4, 2008. Predeceased by wife Dorothy, survived by daughters Eileen, Lynda and Georgina, sons Warwick and Dennis, grandchildren and great- grandchildren. —Mike Crean
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