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Dr David R Lees


We are sad to report that our colleague David Lees, a retired Reader and an ex-Director of Teaching at Cardiff University, died on 1 January 2021. A zoologist and population geneticist by training, David worked at Cardiff University (initially, University College Cardiff) for -more than 30 years through to his retirement in 2004. He was a superb and inspirational teacher, a distinguished researcher and a fondly remembered colleague and friend to many of us.

David Roger Lees was born on 16 February 1942, and grew up in Birmingham. Always a very keen biologist, in 1965 David was the first pupil from his school to be awarded a place at Cambridge University, where he read Zoology at Downing College.

After he graduated, David moved to Oxford University, initially working as a research assistant with Bernard Kettlewell, a somewhat controversial figure, and latterly as a PhD student with Robert Creed. In these years with Kettlewell and Creed, David studied what became known as ‘industrial melanism’. Focusing primarily on the Peppered Moth (Biston betularia) and the evolution of the dark coloured melanic variants of the moth (the insularia and carbonaria forms), first identified in 19th century industrial Britain. David’s publications from this research include a single-authored 1968 Nature paper (‘Genetic Control of the Melanic Form Insularia of the Peppered Moth Biston betularia (L.)’), and the wider body of work provided evidence that the moth adapted to the environment of the industrial revolution’s ‘dark Satanic Mills’ developing camouflage to protect it from predators. It was considered a classic textbook example of evolution by natural selection.

David followed Robert Creed to Cardiff University in 1974, first as a postdoc and soon afterwards was appointed Lecturer in Genetics. He continued his research on industrial melanism, switching his attention to spittlebugs and ladybirds in the South Wales valleys, particularly around the Phurnacite smokeless fuel plant at Mountain Ash, once dubbed 'the dirtiest workplace in Europe'…ideal then for David’s fieldwork! Amongst his other research achievements, he was for many years a well-respected senior Editor of the Biological Journal of the Linnaean Society, the oldest biological journal in the world.

David was a greatly talented teacher, always well prepared, and a great communicator of difficult concepts in biology and genetics. His undergraduate classes on population genetics were popular, quite an achievement for such a challenging area of science. His fieldwork courses on Skokholm Island and elsewhere were transformational to many students, inspiring them to study ecology and evolution. Above all he was a caring individual, looking out for and helping students who were in difficulties or struggling at University. In the School of Pure and Applied Biology, an antecedent of the School of Biosciences, David was a brilliant Director of Teaching – the School’s ‘Excellent’ Teaching Quality Assurance assessment at that time was due in large part to his leadership.

David was an exceptionally kind, considerate and supportive colleague and friend. He gave generously of his time to mentor several staff early in their careers, and was a trusted counsellor to many. We mourn his passing whilst celebrating his life.

Professor Andrew Weightman