Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum

Dennis H. Murphy


Dennis H. "Paddy" Murphy was simply "Prof" to decades of students at the National University of Singapore. He struck an iconic figure in Singapore mangroves in the 1980's and 1990's, typically togged out in trademark safari suit, sling bag, a blunt parang in one hand and a 100m transect tape in the other, a Good Morning towel over his shoulder for frequent mops of the brow and a trail of cigarette smoke which acted both as mosquito repellent and companion as he waited for floundering students to catch up with him though the mud.

Master of this muddy realm, Paddy Murphy was a classical scientist—a well-read mangrove biologist, entomologist, ecologist and geographer, all rolled into one. He mapped the mangroves with squiggly notes on a clipboard with just prismatic compass and tape, explored the world of springtails taxonomy, watched a wide variety of mangrove insect larvae emerge in the laboratory, calculated productivity of plants, studied insect herbivory, lobster mounds, trophic vectors, ecosystem relationships … and along the way, recommended some very illuminative designs for mangrove boardwalks! Through all his years as a master taxonomist, collector and natural historian, he also helped (usually with the greatest of generosity) hundreds of systematists from around the world. He belonged to a generation of kind-hearted and eclectic wise-men who delighted in helping others—just so our knowledge of the natural world could increase!

He took great delight in nature's design which he communicated with a twinkle and chuckle, whether stuck in the mud or when flapping his hands, belly down on a table to illustrate the nuances of insect flight to a delighted class. A walking dictionary of plant and animal scientific names, he had a legendary ability to perceive geographic patterns in the mangroves and would point out patterns of accretion and erosion with patient instruction to hordes of students. He imbued generations of Singapore students with a passion for biology and the kindly philosophy of the practical ecologist. In classrooms around Singapore today, students of Paddy Murphy and their students in turn, are passing on this timeless legacy through muddy explorations.

Meanwhile, in some coffee shops around Singapore, a hawker or two still recall their conversations with this genial, sweaty "ang moh," who would appear in his muddy field garb complete with parang, to swig down a couple of glasses of sugar cane juice in quiet contemplation of the workings of the muddy realm.

Prof Murphy is now retired.


Ng, P. K. L., L. K. Wang & K. L. Lim. 2008. Private lives: an exposé of Singapore’s mangroves. Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research. 240 pp.

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