In remembrance: Prof Dennis Hugh "Paddy" Murphy, inspirational teacher and outstanding scientist
Professor Dennis Hugh Murphy, who instilled a passion for nature in generations of students, passed away peacefully on 7 Nov at the age of 89. Prof Murphy, known affectionately as ‘Paddy’, had lectured at NUS for 30 years from 1960, and was legendary for his encyclopaedic knowledge and his fantastic insect collections.
NUS Biological Sciences Professor Peter Ng, who heads the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, shares his memories of his beloved professor, mentor and friend.
| By Professor Peter Ng, for all of Paddy’s students and friends |
Murphy was a man. Flesh and blood. Mortal. He passed away on the afternoon of 7 November 2020. 89 years of life. But what a life and what an impact he made. He started his career in the then University of Malaya (Singapore) campus in 1960, and stayed till he retired in 1990, 30 years of service. He was part of the pioneer batch of tertiary educators in Singapore. Paddy (as all his friends called him) was a zoologist, a biologist and a polymath. He was a good husband, devoted father and good friend to all who sought his help. He never held high office in the university. He did not write tomes of high impact research papers that changed the course of science. He never won millions of dollars of grants and ran big labs and big programmes. Yet the impact he had on the thousands of students that passed through his classes was immense - beyond all the measures we use to quantify success. His legacy is flesh and blood – mind and soul.
Paddy was an insect specialist by training, starting his career in Gambia as an applied entomologist. In 1960, he moved to Singapore with his wife to join the faculty of a young Department of Zoology as a lecturer in entomology and ecology. In his 31 years in the university, he specialised on insect systematics (especially springtails and mangrove moths) and forest (especially mangrove) ecology. He was one of the first researchers to map Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and was a pioneer in mangrove studies in the region. Paddy was never a prolific writer – he published some 60 papers on a wide variety of topics in his career. But this belied his brilliance as a scientist. In my time with Paddy and many travels, I have met and interacted with hundreds of entomologists, including some of the most brilliant minds of the time. Their comments of Paddy were singular – they were all amazed by his breadth and depth of knowledge – the man knew an awful lot! I remembered years ago I tried to persuade the famed Harvard biologist and ant-expert Edward O. Wilson to visit NUS. He was reluctant as there were no special ants here that caught his interest. The only argument I used that even made him consider the notion was that Paddy would be here to host him!
Paddy was by nature a prolific reader. He was always asking questions, chasing answers and trying to understand what was happening in the natural world. Not just biology – but everything from geology to economics, philosophy, history and even chaos. He studied and explored all manner of insects, animals, ecological processes; often looking at them in novel ways. His insights and ideas were always powerful. And he shared his ideas and data generously. It was just that Paddy got bored all too easily – to him, the fun was in the journey, the journey of discovery.
Once he knew and understood, he got bored and started a new journey, a new challenge. It was exasperating – at least for me as his student and later, peer! I remember so many “arguments” his friends and I had with him to get him to publish his findings. His retort? “Well guys, stop chasing me … here is my data and ideas (scribbled on many pieces of paper) – take it and publish it then if you think it merits so. Just thank me after. I am no longer interested in it anyway.” And he meant it! How is that for an exasperating colleague. Generous to a fault.
The power of Paddy as an educator – as a lecturer and a supervisor – was without equal. He taught by example. We learnt by watching him, seeing how he did things, how he solved problems and his approach to challenges (and life). He had no formal structure to his teaching. Yet his lessons were always memorable. Many of us remembered him as a master “tinkerer” – whenever he faced a technical problem – he would jury-rig a simple device in the lab on the spot to solve it.
I remembered in the early 1980s he built a macro-lens with a bellows for a camera because he needed to photograph a really tiny bug! And he built me a nifty device to examine crab reproductive parts using a paper clip on the spot when I grumbled there was no good device on the market – he made me my own Heath Robinson Contraption! His power of lateral thinking was nothing short of extraordinary. How could a young student not be amazed? A lesser man would crow about this. To Paddy, this was just another day.
Influencing young minds across the ages
Among the thousands of young minds he influenced, many indelibly, he trained some well-known academics - Singapore’s “mosquito-man” Chan Kai Lok, a retired Professor in the Department of Zoology; “spiderman” Joseph Koh, a world authority on spiders but who was a career diplomat; “otterman” N. Sivasothi, a small mammals expert; and a “crabman” (the author). The respect all of us have for him was amply demonstrated in 2017 when the Faculty of Science was doing a fund-raiser for named student scholarships. Joseph and I wanted one for our master teacher – so the call went out to ex-students, colleagues and friends. In a few short weeks, we managed to raise not one but two scholarships! Their replies were uniform – “For Murphy? Sure. When do you need the money?” No questions asked. This is soft power at its best. It shows the immense respect we have for the man – our teacher and mentor – across time.
One of his most successful students, Joseph Koh, who became the High Commissioner to Australia and Brunei, remarks: “He was more than my lecturer and research project supervisor. He was my hero. He taught us more than ecology and entomology. By his own example, he taught us wisdom - he showed profound thinking, without trying to sound profound; he earned our respect and recognition, without seeking attention; and he always articulated what was right, without demonising those who were wrong. That's why he is still loved by successive generations of his students.”
A good man
Paddy taught us more than mere science and how to be a scientist. He taught us very important lessons for life – and many are hard to follow. He was a man with almost no ego. Too many people plan and ponder too much. Most of us are a mess of hopes, ambitions, aspirations, regrets and frustrations – spending too much time chasing lofty goals and glory, or dwelling on our shortcomings and failures. I have never seen Paddy angry – annoyed yes but never angry. He bore no grudges, even against very unpleasant people. He did not even bother to get even. He never regretted what was past. Paddy accepted his flaws and moved on. It takes a very big man to do this. He was driven only by scientific curiosity and a need to ask interesting questions and find answers.
Another of the luminaries he trained, Leo Tan, quipped, “Paddy was the last of the Mohicans. All my expat lecturers have passed on …. Paddy was truly a renaissance biologist who was never fully recognised by his bosses. Yet he never complained.” Paddy belonged to a different age, a more innocent world when scholars were recognised for what they were, and not measured by awards, papers and glory. He never even finished his PhD – he dismissed it out of hand as an “unnecessary distraction’ when many of us were nagging him to do it!
That being said, I was delighted that the head of department, Prof Lam Toong Jin and Dean of Science, Prof Bernard Tan, pushed hard for Paddy’s promotion to Associate Professor in 1983. I knew it was a tough challenge because Paddy had so few papers. But sanity and wisdom prevailed, and I had a newfound respect for university management when it was finally done.
Paddy is a very hard act to follow, and I hate to say, I have not managed to be a good disciple. All his disciples admit we have fallen short. He appeared to be a larger than life figure for all his students because he was, even though he would never admit it. He showed that a humble man, a simple man of science, a wise man can change the world. Not by himself but through his disciples. He shows the power of a good educator.
Nothing lasts forever. All empires fall. And good men die. Leaders speak of “legacy”, of achievements, icons and great deeds done. Then there are those who achieve even greater things without trying – softly, nonchalantly and without fuss or attention – and these last longer and endure because they are from the heart. It resides in the hearts of his students, in the acts they do and then pass on to their juniors. Ad infinitum. That is real legacy. That is Paddy’s legacy.