Darling | Sir | Frank Fraser | 1903-1979 | human ecologist and senior lecturer in ecology and conservation, University of Edinburgh

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Frank Fraser Darling's contribution to ecology and nature conservation was in his development of ecological survey - the analysis of the interdependent relationship between man, his native landscape and the wildlife of his locality. He was born in the stable loft of a farm in Chesterfield. His mother refused to give him into care. He was unconventional and ambitious and much of this can be attributed to his mother's determination to overcome, what in those days was, the crippling social disadvantage of illegitimacy. His earliest experiences of nature were in dawn walks with is mother in the 'great wood' near their home. He left school at fifteen and worked on a farm before studying at the Midland Agricultural College. Here he heard about the work of the Institute of Animal Genetics at Edinburgh University, and in the early 1930s the Director, Francis Crew (1886-1973) offered him a place there to study for a PhD.

Fraser Darling's work on Blackface sheep introduced him to the Scottish landscape, and shortly afterwards he combined this with his genetical knowledge in a series of pioneering studies of the relationship between red deer and the highlander, and the impact of the introduction of sheep in the 19th century. He also studied the behavioural patterns of grey seals and sea-birds. In the 1940s he took up farming again, and his books on island life mark a shift towards what was to become field survey - the human habitat, or 'human ecology' as he called it. These studies integrated the disciplines of zoology and genetics with those of natural history and conservation, and brought him to the attention of the natural historian Sir Julian Huxley (1887-1975). Darling's work influenced Tom Johnston (1881-1965) who, as Secretary of State for Scotland at the end of World War II, undertook to develop the Highlands. Darling became the leading figure in Johnston's crofting improvement programme, but the independent and unorthodox opinions he expressed in Natural History of the Highlands and Islands (1947) and West Highland Survey (1955) curtailed his hopes of a senior government appointment. Despite this he had become a popular national figure to the Scots, and his scientific reputation was extremely high. He was offered a senior lectureship in the Zoology Department at Edinburgh University, and became Huxley's representative at the 1949 UNESCO conservation conference.

In his early fifties, in his own words, he became a cosmopolitan. The US government invited him to apply his principles of 'human ecology', and his travels in America and Mexico resulted in Pelican in the Wilderness: Odyssey of a Naturalist (1956). This book highlighted a theme that had emerged in his Scottish studies - the abuse of nature by man. Thus Darling's interpretation of the term ecology became its defining characteristic in the late 20th century. He repeated the methodology of his Scottish studies of red deer in his 1952 study of the impact of the introduction of Siberian reindeer on native caribou and the consequences of this for the Eskimo population. In the 1950s he undertook a series of 'ecological reconnaissances' in Africa: as a result of which he 'dominated the field of African ecology'. The diminution of wildlife in the game reserves and the need for management policies on ecological principles was extremely pressing.

From 1956-1961 he toured Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and The Sudan. He travelled on foot, by Land Rover and by air in the wet and dry seasons. His holistic overview of complex ecosystems was augmented by the advice of experts in the field. His conclusions encompassed issues as diverse as tribal law, game management, game hunting - which he condemned as vandalism, animal husbandry, flora and colonial politics. The novelty and enduring significance of Fraser Darling's work arose from the union of his intuition with the discipline of rigorous scientific investigation. He warned against superficial and simplistic interpretations, and intensely disliked the 'specialists' who saw their role as information-providers for politicians. To Darling science's purpose was to discover the principles that underlie the complexity of nature in its widest sense.


He collaborated with William Orr, J.H. Ashworth and Cytovich on genetics, with A.S. Leopold, John Morton Boyd and John Markham on the natural history of Scotland, and with R.F. Dasmann and John P. Milton on conservation issues in the USA.

Other Significant Information

Fraser Darling published numerous papers in scientific journals, and over 21 monographs. Notable publications:

The Physiological and Genetical Aspects of Sterility in Domesticated Animals , ( 1932)

Biology of the Fleece of the Scottish Mountain Blackface , ( 1932)

A Herd of Red Deer , ( 1937)

Bird Flocks and the Breeding Cycle , ( 1938)

The Seasons and the Farmer: a Book for Children , ( 1939)

Island Years , ( 1940)

The Seasons and the Fisherman , ( 1941)

The Story of Scotland , ( 1942)

The Care of Farm Animals , ( 1943)

Crofting Agriculture , ( 1945)

Alaska: An Ecological Reconnaissance , ( 1953)

An Ecological Renaissance of the Mara Plains in Kenya Colony , ( 1960)

Wild life in an African territory: a study made for the Game and Tsetse Control Dept. of Northern Rhodesia 1960)

Impacts of Man on the Biosphere 1969)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1933-1936: Awarded Barnard Medal

1934: Elected Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh

1936-1939: Appointed Carnegie Research Fellow

1947: Awarded Mungo Park Medal, Royal Scottish Geographical Society

1969: Awarded Reith Lectures, 'Wilderness and Plenty'

1970: Awarded Knighthood

1970-1973: Appointed member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution

1972: Awarded Centenary Medal, US National Park Service

1973: Created Commandeur, Order of the Golden Ark (Netherlands)


List of sources for the biographical information:

John Morton Boyd (ed.)Fraser Darling in Africa: A Rhino in the Whistling Thorn, ( Edinburgh, 1992)

Who's Who 1978, ( Great Britain, A and C Black Ltd, 1978)