Like most biologists of his generation, Paul Freeman was fascinated by natural history from early childhood. This first hand knowledge gained in hedgerows, ponds and woods laid a solid foundation for the culmination of his scientific career as Keeper of Entomology at the Natural History Museum. He died after a short illness on 31 July 2010, aged 94.
Paul Freeman was born in Brentwood, Essex, and attended Sir Anthony Browne’s School. He was academically able but saw sport simply as an opportunity to pursue natural history in the outfield or on a cross country run.
At 18 he won a competitive scholarship to the prestigious Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, which was one of the premier centres internationally for insect science, producing many leading entomologists, especially in applied entomology.
After gaining a 1st class honours degree in 1937, Freeman continued at Imperial College as demonstrator and researcher, earning a DSc. He studied African cotton pests including the Pyrrhocoridae, plant sucking bugs known as ‘cotton-stainers’ because of the damage they cause to the developing cotton-boll.
Freeman’s scientific career was interrupted by the war, during which he volunteered for the Royal Artillery. He was commissioned as Brigade Intelligence Officer into anti-aircraft work, and deployed from the Orkneys to the south coast of England.
During a subsequent secondment to the Army Operations Research Group, where he reached the rank of Captain, he spent several months in Belgium helping combat Hitler’s V2 rocket programme.
After the war Freeman returned briefly to Imperial College as a lecturer in entomology, before moving to the British Museum (Natural History) - now known as the Natural History Museum - in 1947.
On arriving here, he set to work on the taxonomy of a very large group of flies known collectively as the Nematocera, which he studied for the remainder of his career and into his retirement.
While some of these flies are familiar, such as mosquitoes, most are less well known, such as crane flies, fungus gnats, and many types of midges. These flies are both abundant and diverse in just about every habitat from the arctic to the tropics - there are more than 15,000 recognised species of craneflies (daddy long-legs) alone!
While many of his Imperial College contemporaries were sent to developing countries, Freeman worked on the national collection of over 25 million insects.
The considerable diligence and experience he used to navigate the unknown world of small and often insignificant flies paid off. His monographic work on the classification of blood-sucking simuliid black-flies of Africa formed the foundation for a subsequent explosion of research on the role of these gnats in the transmission of ‘river-blindness’, a terrible parasitic disease.
Similar work on non-biting chironomid midges underpinned much later environmental research into freshwater quality.
Freeman also described more than 500 new species to science in over 80 scientific papers.
Freeman’s contribution to entomology extended beyond his own research. Firstly, as organiser of the 1964 International Congress of Entomology in London, drawing over 1800 participants from all over the world. Secondly, and most importantly, as Keeper of Entomology at the Natural History Museum, which was one of a handful of influential posts in insect science worldwide.
Immediately before his appointment as Keeper in 1968, Freeman led the development of a new insect gallery at the Museum. Crowded rows of browning insects and turgid text were replaced with an engaging and colourful display highlighting the remarkable diversity of insects as the most abundant life form on Earth. Drawing on his remarkably broad knowledge of insects, he engaged the public with the simple beauty and extra-ordinariness of insect life.
He was the last Keeper to mastermind and curate a major gallery at the Museum, with responsibility not only for the content and storyline but also the display of specimens. In the final stages of the gallery’s development he was to be found personally placing specimens in their new cases and checking the labels and illustrations for their ability to inform.
The late 1960s and 1970s brought much change to the Museum, as it expanded its scientific scope and took on more staff. Against a backdrop of an old-fashioned hierarchy, Freeman had a genuine interest in his staff as individuals. He typically commented, ‘it is important to look after the junior staff as the senior staff can look after themselves’.
His style might have appeared paternalistic at times, drawing on his experience as a deeply committed family man, but his actions were always well intentioned. His fostering of young scientists led to a cohort of entomologists, including two of his successors, who went on to make a significant impact internationally.
He leaves Audrey, his wife of 68 years, two daughters, one of whom predeceased him in 2005, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Professor Richard Lane
Director of Science, Natural History Museum
(Originally featured in the Guardian)