Tearful at the Falling of a Star: In Memory of Professor Brian Morton
(10 August 1942 – 28 March 2021)
“The value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them”
— (Michel de Montaigne)
The 28 March 2021 was, and remains, a day of great sadness for many marine biologists who mourn the passing of Professor Brian Morton, a distinguished marine biologist, an exemplary teacher and a dear friend, after a brave battle with his chronic lung disease over three years. While we deeply grieve the loss of Brian, we also celebrate his life, so full of memories and achievements.
Brian received his PhD from Chelsea College, University of London in 1969, under the supervision of Professor Richard Denison Purchon, who himself was a student of Sir Maurice Yonge, a world authority in malacology. After his PhD, he spent half a year working at the marine laboratory of the Portsmouth University on Hayling Island. Immediately afterwards, he made the bold decision to move to Hong Kong, a place totally new and almost unknown to him, to join The University of Hong Kong as an Assistant Lecturer (later retitled as Lecturer) in the Zoology Department, and began his glamorous path for the next 33 years. As a result of his outstanding achievements, he was rapidly promoted to Reader, Professor, and subsequently Chair Professor in 1975, 1982 and 1994 respectively. In 2003, he decided to retire from The University of Hong Kong as an Emeritus Professor in Marine Ecology and return to Littlehampton, his hometown in the UK. In recognition of his significant research contributions in malacology, Brian was awarded a Doctor of Science by The University of Hong Kong in 2014, further tightening his close bond with the University.
Brian’s research covered a wide range of topics in marine biology, especially the biology of molluscs and marine conservation. Before his retirement, Brian had published over 300 refereed scientific research/review papers, over 40 editorials, 19 books, 16 book chapters, and served as editor of 16 workshop/conference proceedings and 18 volumes of Asian Marine Biology (the first and only marine biological journal in Hong Kong, launched by him). His book “The Sea Shore Ecology of Hong Kong” is widely acknowledged as the key reference for marine biology in Hong Kong. His passion in marine biological research and dedication to marine conservation did not diminish in any way following his retirement. He set up his own laboratory in his house in Littlehampton to further his research, and produced another 120 refereed scientific research/review papers, 40 editorials, 5 books and 6 book chapters, and continued to deliver talks at conferences and symposia. Apart from being a prolific marine environmental scientist, Brian was also a highly talented biological artist, and his pencil drawings on marine animals are highly sought after by many.
Beyond Hong Kong, Brian served as an editor or on the Editorial Boards of many key international journals, (including Marine Pollution Bulletin, Malacological Review and Açoreana), and won many prestigious international awards, including Knight (Ridder) in the Order of the Golden Ark (The Netherlands) in 1997, for his contributions to environmental education; Officer in the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) (UK) in 1999, for his contributions to marine ecology in Hong Kong; and the Duke of Edinburgh Conservation Gold Medal in 2004.
Brian’s dedication and vision in preserving marine biodiversity in Hong Kong began very soon after his arrival in 1970. His leadership through his service in various government committees was instrumental in the subsequent establishment of marine parks, marine reserve and Mai Po Nature Reserve in Hong Kong. In 1990, he established the Swire Marine Laboratory (later renamed the Swire Institute of Marine Science, SWIMS), fulfilling his dream of providing an excellent research facility to nurture our next generation of marine biologists in Hong Kong and the region.
Between 1977 and 2002, Brian organised 9 international workshops, and invited a large number of marine biologists with different expertise from China and overseas to work on Hong Kong’s marine life in different habitats, which laid a solid foundation of marine biological research in Hong Kong.
Brian set an example as an excellent teacher and caring mentor. He treated his postgraduate students as his own family, stimulating their interest and nurturing their research with great enthusiasm, patience and effort. He successfully nurtured a total of 39 PhD, 23 MPhil and 14 MSc students, many of them have developed their own distinguished professional careers. Notably, some of his students (including the second and third generations in the Morton pedigree) have become internationally renowned academics in universities in Hong Kong, China, Australia, Canada, Europe and the USA; some others as leaders in environmental protection and marine conservation in government departments; others have worked within NGOs, and many others are scientific experts in private enterprises worldwide. Naturally, Brian’s students (and the subsequent generations) are extremely proud of being a member of the “Mortonian Clan”, as they were all fortunate enough to have been inspired by their mentor’s infectious passion for science and conservation.
A Final Word
It remains very difficult for us to accept that, sadly, Brian Morton’s bright candle has been burned out. However, his legacy as a towering figure of marine biology, a truly inspirational teacher and dear friend continues. We were more than fortunate to cross paths with Brian, and all those fond memories over so many years will be long remembered by his students, colleagues and friends. The foundations Brian laid in marine biology, marine conservation, and environmental education have inspired us, and will continue to grow and exert a significant impact on Hong Kong and its marine environment for many years to come.
Excerpt from Wu et al. (2021) Tearful at the falling of a star: In memory of Professor Brian Morton (10th August 1942 – 28th March 2021). Marine Pollution Bulletin, in press
Sheppard, C., M Elliott, B Richardson, P Hutchings, PKS Shin, RSS Wu, 2021. Brian Morton, PhD, DSc, OBE, JP (1942–2021): Celebrating the life of our most prolific contributor. Marine Pollution Bulletin 172, 112482