Tributes paid to 'inspirational' Shropshire university professor

Tributes have been paid to a leading figure in the entomological community who passed away peacefully this week.

Professor Simon Leather
Professor Simon Leather

Simon Leather, professor emeritus at Harper Adams University near Newport, was renowned not only in his field but well beyond – and colleagues and students, past and present, across the globe have spoken of their fond memories of him.

On his personal blog, Professor Leather described himself as an 'applied entomologist'.

He said: “I am a competent field entomologist who can recognise most insects to order, some orders to family and within some families I am able to recognise individual species, especially if they are of economic importance.”

He used the blog to recall the wonder he first felt on encountering the insect world – which he conveyed throughout his life in his teaching, writing and social media.

He wrote: “I fell in love with insects when I was a child in Jamaica, and discovered the complexity of ant societies, although I was also a great fan of orb web spiders, or crab spiders as my brother and I used to call them.

“From the very beginning I was much more interested in how insects worked and behaved rather than in collecting and pinning them.”

In 2012, Professor Leather joined Harper Adams as the head of a new entomology team, leading teaching and research.

Dr Andy Wilcox, head of the agriculture and environment department, said: “When he did start with us, I think it had a big impact – on how we went about research, but also in terms of the kinds of opportunities we went for.

“He just raised the game, really – he increased our expectations, not in any overt way, it just happened by osmosis and through the way he did things."

In his inaugural lecture at the university, Professor Leather shared his entomological journey, which began with his first experience of biology at the age of three.

Professor Leather’s first degree, from Leeds University, was in agricultural zoology, essentially parasitology and entomology related to agriculture.

At Leeds he fell in love with aphids and his PhD, at the University of East Anglia, was on the ecology of the bird-cherry-oat aphid Rhopalosiphum padi.

He then did a post-doc, courtesy of the Royal Society, in Finland, developing a prediction system for R. padi, followed by a short post-doc back at UEA before a 10 year stint with the Forestry Commission where he worked on the pine beauty moth, Panolis flammea and the large pine weevil, Hylobius abietis as well as doing advisory work and supervising research students.

Subsequently, Professor Leather was at Imperial College London for 20 years, working on agricultural, horticultural and forest pests.

During this time he discovered the joy of urban ecology.

His work took him across the globe, from Iceland to Africa, and he had lived in diverse locations from Jamaica to Hong Kong, as well as his native county of Yorkshire.

Professor Leather was elected a Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society in 1978, and served in a series of key roles in both the society and on entomological journals.

He also served as a trustee between both 1993 to 1996 and then 2011 to 2014, the editor of society bulletin Antenna between 1992 and 1995, and the editor of Ecological Entomology between 1999 and 2003.

One of the founding editors of Insect Conservation, which he edited between 2008 and 2021, he also served as an editorial board member of Agricultural & Forest Entomology and was chair of the RES Library Committee from 2018 to 2021.

He was appointed as an Honorary Fellow (Hon FRES) of the society in 2015.

Professor Helen Roy, Royal Entomological Society President, said: “Simon was truly inspirational and changed entomology in the UK in extraordinary ways.

“We were privileged indeed to have him as an honorary fellow. He leaves an amazing legacy through his students and research, he will be sadly missed by so many.”

The influence Professor Leather had was reflected in the warm words from colleagues and students, past and present, when the news of his death was announced.

Reader in entomology Dr Tom Pope – who moved to Harper Adams at the same time as Professor Leather – said: “He could work across the whole gamut of entomology – often, academics will specialise in a particular area, but he had an influence on all kinds of things, across the university and beyond.

“An awful lot of people who he taught, he stayed in contact with – and that meant he had a huge network of students and friends to draw upon, as well an encyclopaedic knowledge of people in the world of entomology.”

Dr Wilcox added: “As one man, he had a massive impact on UK entomological teaching and research.

“He felt passionate about training people to become the next generation in the subject.

“The way he engaged with MSc students who were on the courses he taught, he brought in visiting lecturers and people he knew from all over the place- that kind of thing just improved our overall performance.

“Our current lecturers are part of that next generation, which he worked so hard to bring through.”

Among this new generation are current Harper Adams entomology lecturers Dr Simon Segar and Dr Joe Roberts.

Dr Segar said: “It is hard to think of anyone comparable in terms of influence – though he didn’t seek recognition for what he did, he just enjoyed it.

“He was a very engaging person – I think it is only in the last few years, as some of his work wound down it, became clear just how much he did, talking to all kinds of clubs and societies about entomology, insects, and what he did.”

Dr Roberts added: “He was an entomologist in the broadest sense. He was a mover on social media too, with almost 10,000 followers – but an unconventional one.

“He never tweeted from a phone – he always used his computer.”

That engagement on Twitter – where hundreds of people across the globe have been paying their own tributes to him – was driven by Professor Leather’s passions.

He proudly and prolifically blogged and tweeted about whatever drew his interest.

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