About Malcolm Lyall Watson, Dr
Modern day adventurer, explorer and author of 29 books bridging science and mysticism. Was instrumental in the international ban on whaling. TV presenter bringing Sumo wrestling to the UK. Tour leader to Antarctica, the Amazon, Galapagos Islands, Seychelles, Indonesia and PNG.
Lyall Watson, who died on June 25 aged 69, was an adventurer, explorer and the author of New Age books about the paranormal, including the bestselling Supernature (1973); he introduced the psychic showman Uri Geller to British television audiences, and in the 1980s imported sumo wrestling to the West, presenting coverage of sumo tournaments on Channel 4.
A radical thinker operating at the margins of accepted science, Watson was an apparent polymath who might have sprung fully-formed from a Victorian adventure by Jules Verne or H Rider Haggard.
A dapper, shimmering figure, often dressed for the tropics in a safari suit of white linen, he led the first scientific journey up the Amazon river, and was the first white person seen by headhunters in Papua New Guinea.
Supernature, his most successful book, dealt with mysterious and inexplicable natural phenomena. It became a 1970s student essential, and was acclaimed for its stimulating treatment of exotic and unexpected scientific facts and discoveries.
As a populariser of science snapping up unconsidered nerdy trifles, Watson ranged over astrology, paranormal phenomena, alchemy, circadian rhythms, palmistry, dreams and much else.The book went into 10 reprints in as many weeks, topped the bestseller list for 50 weeks, sold 750,000 copies in paperback and was translated into eight languages.
His open-mindedness was refreshing, said one reviewer in The Daily Telegraph; another upbraided him for being "embarrassingly credulous" in accepting a claim that plants responded to the killing of a live shrimp thrown into boiling water.
A botanist, zoologist, biologist, anthropologist and ethologist, at 23 Watson was director of Johannesburg Zoo, and subsequently became an expedition leader, a television producer and Seychelles commissioner for the International Whaling Commission. Describing himself as a "scientific nomad", he considered conventional science simply inadequate to explain much human experience.
Watson followed Supernature with a book about the nature of death, the afterlife and the supernatural, The Romeo Error (1974), and this, too, became a bestseller.
In his sixth book, Lifetide (1979), Watson made what was believed to be the first published use of the term "hundredth monkey".
This phenomenon referred to a sudden spontaneous and mysterious leap of consciousness achieved when an allegedly "critical mass" point is reached. Watson was writing about several studies done in the 1960s by Japanese primatologists of Japanese macaques (Macaca fuscata).
Claiming that the scientists were "reluctant to publish [the whole story] for fear of ridicule", Watson wrote that he had to "gather the rest of the story from personal anecdotes and bits of folklore among primate researchers, because most of them are still not quite sure what happened".
Malcolm Lyall-Watson was born on April 12 1939 in Johannesburg, the eldest of three brothers. His Scottish father was an architect and his mother, a radiologist.
In a world in which adults were preoccupied with the Second World War, young Lyall was sent as a boarder to Rondebosch Boys' High School, Cape Town.
An exceptional scholar, he started at the University of the Witwatersrand aged 15 and by the age of 19 held degrees in Botany and Zoology. While still in South Africa, he added degrees which included the study of Geology, Chemistry, Marine Biology, Ecology and Anthropology, before moving to London, where he completed a doctorate in Ethology (animal behaviour) at London University under the supervision of Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, and then curator of mammals at London Zoo.
Having thus made himself virtually unemployable (as he wryly noted), he joined BBC Television as a producer and reporter on Tomorrow's World, abandoned his given name of Malcolm, started a consultancy, designed and directed zoos, ran a safari company in Kenya and founded a marine national park in the Seychelles.
In 1973 he shared a television studio with the fork-bending psychic Uri Geller, whom he claimed to have discovered, and who was making his first live TV appearance. It had been Watson's suggestion, in the wake of Supernature, that the BBC fly Geller from the United States to demonstrate his apparent powers of psychokinesis.
Although Watson had struggled for two years to persuade a publisher to take his book, the success of Supernature threw him into the spotlight. He began lecture tours and was picked up by the Japanese as a cult hero.
He started work on his first book, Omnivore (1972), in the early 1960s, and produced 25 titles in all, covering an eclectic range of subjects including the nature of crowds and a history of the wind. His last, The Whole Hog (2004), explored the history and potential of pigs.
Watson had an endlessly enquiring mind and never lost the habit of questioning received wisdom. Restless and nomadic, he travelled widely throughout his life, visiting Antarctica numerous times as an expedition leader and researcher. He introduced into his own body a tapeworm called Fred which, he claimed, unfailingly protected him from stomach disorders abroad. At various times he lived in America, South Africa, England and latterly Ireland, rising at six every morning to write for three hours before starting his day.
Although Supernature opened many doors for Watson – he dined at Buckingham Palace and with the Japanese royal family – he remained a very private man, protective of his personal space. His enquiring mind never relaxed, and he was always on the lookout for the unusual, and the truth behind the obvious.
In 1985 Watson was appointed a Knight of the Order of the Golden Ark by the Netherlands in honour of his conservation work on the International Whaling Commission.
Although he had no children, he indulged his five nieces on their 18th birthdays by taking them anywhere in the world they wanted to go. On the first of these trips – to Egypt – a diner in a restaurant offered Watson 200,000 camels for the hand of his eldest niece, Katherine. After a lengthy, pregnant pause, Watson successfully called the admirer's bluff when he replied that her price was her weight in gold.
Malcolm Lyall Watson, Dr's Timeline
April 12, 1939
Johannesburg, City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality, Gauteng, South Africa
Santa Fe, Santa Fe, New Mexico, United States
January 9, 2005
June 25, 2008
Gympie, Queensland, Australia
June 27, 2008
Noosa Heads, Queensland, Australia