Gaden Robinson was a prolific, colourful entomologist specialising in the taxonomy of moths. He was a valued member of the Natural History Museum's Entomology Department for 35 years. He died of AL amyloidosis on 7 September 2009, aged 60.
Gaden Robinson was steeped in the study of Lepidoptera, particularly the smaller moths, many of which he affectionately referred to as ‘squitty little brown jobs’. His father Hugh, co-inventor of the widely-used Robinson light trap for flying insects, was an enthusiastic amateur lepidopterist who kindled his son’s interest in the subject almost from the cradle.
Robinson was held in esteem internationally as a master practitioner of insect taxonomy - the classification of species. His standing in research was recognised in many ways, including the award in 2008 of the Karl Jordan Medal, a significant international prize conferred by the American Lepidopterists’ Society for outstanding and original contribution to the subject.
The work of insect taxonomists is exacting, the identification of these creatures requiring hours of study at the microscope, careful library research and painstaking comparison of specimens with others stored in the great collections of the world.
Such activities often suit introverts. Robinson, by contrast, was a raconteur with a colourful, expressive personality and a razor-sharp sense of humour.
An apparently relaxed and clubbable approach to life belied a strongly analytical mind and a focus that led to a prolific output of published research. He was also a skilled draughtsman, making excellent technical drawings of moth anatomy and paintings of some of the moths he studied.
Gaden Sutherland Robinson was born in Winchester on 11 April 1949. As a result of his father accepting positions in Singapore and Malaysia, he spent much of his childhood in an area of great insect diversity, an experience that shaped his life and career and gave him an abiding interest in the ecology of the rainforest. Supported by his father’s knowledge and with a boyhood sense of adventure he was able to capture, preserve and dissect all manner of tropical insects.
He graduated in Zoology at Durham University where he also completed, in 1974, a PhD on the taxonomy and biogeography of the Lepidoptera of Fiji. Over twenty years later (1995), he gained a DSc from the same university.
In 1974, Robinson joined the Entomology Department of the Natural History Museum in London, retiring in April of 2009 after 35 years at the organisation. While he had concentrated on the larger moths and butterflies for his doctoral thesis, once at the Museum he shifted his attention to their smaller brethren, the Microlepidoptera.
More specifically he studied the Tineidae – a family of almost 3000 known species that includes the notorious clothes moths. He specialised in moths of South-East Asia and some of his happiest times were spent collecting in the jungle, where on occasion he was taken by the army to remote regions in which he delighted both in the abundant wildlife and the privation.
On retirement he became a Scientific Associate of the Museum’s Entomology Department, a status he readily accepted with every intention of continuing his research.
The outcome of Robinson’s diligence and ability was prodigious. During his career he produced numerous meticulously researched, learned publications on moths, including several books. Not only did his productivity in print outstrip that of most of his peers, but he also compiled two large, important databases, available online - one to the tineid moths of the world and the other to the food plants of the world’s Lepidoptera.
These specialist works were complemented by more popular writings, including the co-authorship of ‘365 Days of Nature and Discovery’, a family book, and the contribution of a very personal and entertaining chapter in ‘Letters to Linnaeus’, published by the Linnean Society of London earlier this year.
Never lost for words, whether written or spoken, Robinson had a delightful turn of phrase. His talent was also used to great effect in lectures, informal talks, conversation and, by no means least, an interview on the problems of clothes moths on Women’s Hour. He also penned some stylish and highly readable reviews of natural history books for the Times Literary Supplement.
Robinson’s love of classification and detail extended to his main hobby, philately. His ability to make fine observations and logical deductions, and to keep accurate notes, was instrumental in enabling him to take philatelic research to a level higher than most collectors would have thought possible.
He specialised in the stamps of Malaya and his study of the overprints and surcharges of the Malay State of Perak in the 1880s was all new work in an area some thought was complete and finished. For several years before stamp collecting became a passion he dabbled in book-binding, meticulously restoring old, damaged pages and re-binding them in exquisitely-tooled covers.
Robinson’s final years were troubled. He suffered the death of Beth, his wife of 27 years, and his own declining health, yet he retained his productivity and good spirit to the end. In 2008, he published a magnificent treatise on a group of small and cryptic brown moths of the tineid genus Edosa, describing and naming numerous new species. His love of blues music and sense of humour were reflected in the names he gave to many of the new moths, including such gems as Edosa screaminjayella, E. claptonella and E. bodiddlyella.
His final magnum opus, in press when he died, is appropriately a summary of the biology, distribution and diversity of tineid moths, the insects to which he devoted most of his career. In the entertaining introduction to this esoteric work he posed the question 'Why Tineidae – why pick on us?' His response was 'Because you’re cute little moths. I think it’s the hair that does it – Jimi Hendrix taken to extremes, but well-kempt admittedly...There aren’t many other small moths which have erect scales all over the head...'.
His death, occurring a mere five months after his retirement, saddened friends and colleagues around the world and truncated what would surely have been a continuing stream of significant publications.
He is survived by his two sons, Richard and Hugh.