Bob Savage (1927-1998)

Expert on fossil mammals who was well known for his work on the Cenozoic mammals of Africa, especially from Libya and Kenya.

Professor Robert J. G. (‘Bob”) Savage was born in Northern Ireland, educated mainly in Dublin, and he then did his PhD in the 1950s at University College London. For most of his professional life, he was a palaeontologist on the staff of the Department of Geology at the University of Bristol, and he keenly fostered the teaching of palaeontology and a joint degree programme between biology and geology, which is now the BSc and MSci in Palaeobiology.

Bob Savage was educated in Belfast and Dublin, and then earned two undergraduate degrees at the Queen’s University Belfast, a BSc in Zoology (1948) and a BSc in Geology (1949). He then moved to University College London to work with D.M.S. Watson, as his final research student, earning his PhD in 1953 for his thesis on the fossil otter Potamotherium, later published (Savage 1957).

Bob Savage’s first professional post was as assistant lecturer at the Queen’s University Belfast, where from 1952 he worked with the Head of Department, Professor J. K. Charlesworth, in expanding and moving the Department of Geology to a new building. Savage then moved to the University of Bristol in 1954, as lecturer and Curator of the Geological Museum. He was was promoted to Reader in Vertebrate Palaeontology in 1966, and then Professor in Vertebrate Palaeontology in 1982.

Bob Savage was especially known for his research on fossil mammals, especially in Africa. He first visited the continent when he went to work with the great palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey (1903-1972) in Kenya. He also conducted a long series of expeditions to Libya, beginning in 1957 and continuing throughout the 1960s. He focused on the Miocene rocks of the Gebel Zelten in the south of Libya, travelling there each year with his students who shared the driving of his expeditionary land rover all the way from Bristol. He and his team loaded all their gear, and drove continuously, one driving and one sleeping in the back, across Spain to Gibraltar, from there by ferry to Morocco, and then a long slog across Algeria, Tunisia, and finally Libya, and then through the Sahara Desert to Gebel Zelten. The whole drive took 3 days and 3 nights. With Louis Leakey and with Shirley Coryndon (1926-1976), Savage published four volumes of ‘The Fossil Vertebrates of Africa’ in which his work on the fossil mammals of Kenya and Libya was presented. One of his major contributions was a description of the giant flesh-eating hyaenodont Megistotherium (Savage 1973).

Bob Savage also conducted field work in Israel, Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, Australia, and Venezuela. More locally, he had explored the Early Jurassic fissure sites and their early mammal and tritylodont fossils around Bristol. Then, in the 1970s he did work on the Middle Jurassic of the Isle Skye in Scotland, reporting the first Mesozoic mammal from Scotland, Borealestes serendipitus, and the tritylodontid Stereognathus hebridicus. Savage published papers on the geology around Bristol as well as accounts of the building stones of Clifton and the Goldney grotto, and in 1977 edited a volume of field trips around Bristol. In 1986, with artist Michael Long, he published his popular book Mammal Evolution: An Illustrated Guide.

In 1969, Bob Savage married Shirley C. Coryndon, a fellow palaeontologist and authority on fossil hippopotami, having first met in Kenya in 1955. Savage was a good-natured raconteur, and “something of a raffish gentleman explorer” (Benton 1994). Richard Leakey recalled he had “a superb sense of humour and was seldom without a twinkle in his eye that belied his rather severe exterior. Nothing pleased him more than to set his guests before his fireplace after dinner and then test their knowledge of [fossils].” Shirley Coryndon died in 1976. Savage died in 1998 of pancreatic cancer, survived by two stepdaughters.

Read More

Benton, M.J. 1994. Professor R. J. G. Savage: an appreciation. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 112, 3–12. Read biography here.

Savage, R.J.G. 1957. The anatomy of Potamotherium, an Oligocene lutrine. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 129, 151-244.

Savage, R.J.G. 1973. Megistotherium, gigantic hyaenodont from Miocene of Gebel Zelten, Libya. Bulletin of the British Museum (Natural History) Geology 22, 483-511.

Savage, R.J.G. 1977. Geological Excursions in the Bristol District. University of Bristol, Bristol.

Savage, R.J.G. and Long, M.R. 1986. Mammal Evolution: An Illustrated Guide. British Museum (Natural History), London.