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Hamish Boyd Gilliland was born on 2nd October 1911 in Southern Rhodesia, educated at George Watson’s College, Edinburgh, and read Botany and Zoology in the University of Edinburgh, for the degree of B.Sc. In due course he read for an honours degree under Professor Sir William Wright Smith, Regius Professor and Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden. Later he studied at the British Museum of Natural History, where he improved his knowledge of systematic botany and generally prepared himself for a career in southern Africa.
Gilliland’s own studies in North-east Africa provided information which he admirably worked up after the war for a thesis for the degree of D.Sc., which was awarded by the University of the Witwatersrand in 1947. Abstracts from this thesis were published in the Journal of Ecology in 1952.
Gilliland came to Singapore in September, 1955 as the second holder of the Chair of Botany in the then University of Malaya. Within a couple of years of his arrival Gilliland was faced with the necessity of establishing a new and separately equipped and staffed department at the new Kuala Lumpur Division of the University of Malaya. In 1960 the department in Kuala Lumpur became separate under its own professor, and in the 1961/62 session, when the two divisions of the University of Malaya split, that in Kuala Lumpur retaining the University name, while that in Singapore, where Gilliland remained, became the University of Singapore, and eventually, years later, the National University of Singapore.
During his years as head of the department, he established the herbarium, as a teaching collection. His interests were both taxonomic and ecological, and conducted succession studies on secondary vegetation, building on the observations of earlier workers. His special botanical interest was in grasses, an interest that followed him from his earlier days in South Africa. Modern readers are fully aware of his ‘Grasses of Malaya’ which was published as Volume 3 of the Flora of Malaya. His keen interest in conservation led him to serve as trustee on the Singapore Nature Reserves Board for more then five years, during the period 1955 to 1961.
After some five years in Singapore Gilliland began to suffer from an asthmatic condition. In 1964 he was taken seriously ill with a respiratory illness (possibly asthma or pneumonia) and had to spend some time in hospital. To regain full health he would have to move to a drier climate and he left Singapore on 3rd February, 1965 for South Africa and took up an appointment at the Botany Department of the University of Natal at Pietermaritzburg. Soon after his arrival in Pietermaritzburg, he made an 800 mile car journey to Johannesburg and back to attend his son’s graduation at Witwatersrand University. The effort of this, the sudden change to a high elevation climate, and lack of his physical reserves of strength brought on a relapse of his illness. Shortly after he had an attack of pneumonia which brought his life to an end on 23rd June, 1965 at the age of 54 years.
Glliland was more than just a researcher. He had sought to bring out the educational aspects of conservation so that the common citizen with no special training in biology, as well as biology students, might learn to understand and appreciate natural Biology. Although by nature reserved, Gilliland showed to those he worked a kindliness, a warmth and a generosity of spirit.
SOURCE: J. Purseglove & H. M. Burkhill, 1967. H. B. Gilliland, 1911-1965. An Appreciation. Gardens Bulletin, Singapore, 107-111.