News and Events

Tribute to Mike Majerus

6 February 2009

The University is saddened to announce the passing of Professor Mike Majerus, beloved teacher and inspirational scientist. Mike, who was a Fellow of Clare College, died peacefully last week at the age of 54.

Mike Majerus was a world-renowned evolutionary geneticist who will be particularly remembered for his work on the evolutionary ecology of the Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) and Coccinellidae (ladybirds).

A staunch defender of Darwinian evolution, Mike worked extensively with the 'peppered moth', Biston betularia (the celebrated example of natural selection in action), making a significant contribution to the evolution versus intelligent design debate. This was acknowledged internationally, with invited lectures at conferences in Australia, Canada, Japan, France, Italy and Sweden.

During his work on ladybirds, Mike was the first to show that female mating preferences could be genetically determined, thereby confirming a critical aspect of Darwin's theory of sexual selection by female choice. He also worked extensively on the biased sex-ratios caused by 'male-killing bacteria' in some ladybird and butterfly species, showing that these organisms can have significant evolutionary consequences for ladybird and butterfly populations.

In recent years, Mike's work also focused on the arrival of the invasive harlequin ladybird, Harmonia axyridis, in the UK. This subject proved popular with the British public, and thanks to numerous media appearances by Mike, thousands of records of the distribution of harlequin ladybirds (and native British ladybirds) were sent in from around the country, resulting in a dataset of unprecedented quality for the early establishment of an invasive (non-native) species.

Mike worked tirelessly and passionately on the public dissemination of science, which was demonstrated not only by his devotion to his students but also his enthusiasm for the Amateur Entomologists' Society, of which he was a member since the age of ten and President since 2005.

The enthusiasm with which Mike communicated his ideas to both public and scientific audiences, coupled with his obvious skill and enjoyment of teaching, made him truly an inspiring individual. Mike's exceptional research record resulted from a lifelong passion for his subject, his comprehensive knowledge of biological systems involving insects and his unusual empathy for the habits of the organisms that he studied.

Mike was an incredibly charismatic individual with boundless energy and optimism. It was often difficult to discern the boundaries between his life and his work: his work was his life, and one which he shared with all his family and friends. He often said he felt incredibly lucky to have made a living out of doing what he loved. Mike was happiest when he was trekking through a rainforest, or climbing up some mountain, as long as he had his butterfly net in tow.

Dr Remy Ware, Professor Majerus's post-doctoral student and friend, said: "He took great pleasure in sharing these experiences with his family members and students, and you simply couldn't help but be fascinated by everything he said and did. Even when at home, he would be doing something entomological: pinning and setting his butterflies, putting out his moth trap, or making his garden insect-friendly (although he would occasionally look up from his specimens to catch the latest cricket score, or cheer as Spurs scored the winning goal!). It is not often you meet someone whose love of life is so apparent: it is this that I will miss the most.

"Mike was my mentor, and one of my closest friends. I met him during my first year as an undergraduate at university. There is no doubt that he has been the biggest inspiration in my life. He first enthused me about evolution and ecology, and helped me develop a true love of natural history. After taking Zoology in my final year, I went on to do a PhD in Mike's group, and stayed with him ever since. I had hoped that my close professional and personal relationship with this truly inspiring individual would continue long into the future.

"But Mike leaves a lasting legacy in his field, not only in terms of the valid scientific contributions he has made, but also in teaching and mentoring the evolutionary biologists of tomorrow. I am not alone in feeling that Mike changed my life: every student who has ever been lectured or supervised by him would agree that his infectious enthusiasm for the natural world left a lasting impression. This and the endless Genesis he would force his students to listen to on the way to fieldwork sites!"

Dr David Summers, Head of the Department of Genetics, said: "Mike Majerus was a traditional Cambridge scientist; a charismatic individual for whom the boundaries between life and work, and teaching and research, were very hard to discern. He was a world authority in his field, a tireless advocate of evolution and an enthusiastic educator of graduate and undergraduate students.

"Mike's passion for his subject and his rapport with students made him an ideal undergraduate lecturer. He had a keen interest in field work and was tireless in training all of his students in practical skills. An enthusiast, a natural teacher and a man who radiated a passion for his subject, he will be very sorely missed by all of his friends and colleagues in the Department of Genetics."

Dr William Foster said of his friend and colleague: "He was a wonderfully enthusiastic, doughty fighter for evolutionary biology. He really loved insects - moths, butterflies, ladybirds, you name it. He was a brilliant teacher - he loved his students and they loved and admired him. He was a world-class field worker. Rather unusually for an academic, he was just as respected amongst amateur entomologists as amongst professional ones, and in fact would not have thought it worthwhile to make such a distinction: all were (or should be) consumed with the desire to find out more about insects. He certainly was."

"Mike joined the Fellowship in 1990 and he was promoted to his chair in 2006. We knew him as a distinguished geneticist, an inspirational director of studies, a much-loved teacher and a wonderful colleague. Our thoughts are very much with Christina at this time," said Professor Tony Badger, Master of Clare College.

The family has asked that donations in memory of Mike be made to the Amateur Entomologist's Society, a body which was close to Mike's heart.

His inspiring recent lecture, 'The Peppered Moth: The Proof of Darwinian Evolution', given at the European Society of Evolutionary Biology in Uppsala, Sweden, is available at the webpage accessible on the upper right hand side.

Thank you to Dr Remy Ware who contributed extensively to this article.

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