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Obituary: 'Have no Fear Wilkes is here' - Tony Wilkes (1933-2020)

April 15, 2020 - 08:48 -- Ingeborg van Schayk

Mr Tony Wilkes MIBiol was a field entomologist at the East African Malaria Institute in Amani, Tanzania (then called Tanganyika), from 1958 to 1964 working on the main vectors of malaria in Africa. Returning to the UK in 1965 he worked on the behaviour of mosquitoes at the University of Sussex’s School of Biology, moving to Imperial College, Silwood Park, Ascot, in 1980, working on sand fly biology and behaviour, and in 1987 to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine working on mosquito biology and control until his retirement in 1995. The obituary below was contributed by Dr. Derek Charlwood.

A legend has just gone, thanks to the Coronavirus. Tony Wilkes died last week. So how does one start to describe a legend? Everyone loved Tony. Everyone. And everyone who knew him knew this. I know of no-one else that I can say this about. And why did we love him? Well, Tony has to have been the funniest person I know. You were always laughing when you were in Tony's company, always.

Just as behind every great man there is an even greater woman so behind every great scientist there is an even greater technician. Tony’s background was not academic (he even got thrown out of school) and so his intellectual contribution to the team of Gillies and Wilkes was largely underrated. This is in part because Gillies was by far and away the best medical entomologist and scientist around and in part because of Tony's exceptional technical expertise. He was the one who could dissect mosquitoes to determine their age, something which very few people have since mastered and none as good as he did. He learnt the technique from Detinova who was visiting Tanzania ostensibly to teach the technique to Gillies. Gillies bet him a bottle of beer for any that Tony got right when he suggested that he thought he could do it. By the time Tony was a crate of beer to the good Gillies conceded.

The work that they did together in East Africa is a 'must read' for all medical entomologists – really, if you haven't read it you should. He and Gillies had a great time together. They used to play 'Farting Tennis'. Tony told of a time when he was woken by Gillies at 4 am (in order that he might go and take his turn at emptying traps) asking him and saying 'Fifteen all, 30-15, 40-15, game set and match, Gillies!'  Another time Tony gave up shaving – just the two of them were living in Walikunda in The Gambia at the time. Gillies asked 'Why don't you shave?' 'No one to look at me.' 'I've got to look at you!!' Another time it must have been even worse. In conducting an experiment with Bill Snow, I think, he had to remain unwashed for several weeks to see if unwashed bodies would attract more malaria mosquitoes (whilst Bill was squeaky clean).

I was a naive PhD student at the Mosquito Behaviour Unit (or Mbu – which means mosquito in Swahili). At the time he and Gillies would spend the winter months in The Gambia and the summer in the UK. Gillies sat in his office writing manuscripts describing their recent work and Tony prepared things for their next trip – not a particularly onerous occupation. It was easy for him to lure me down the pub.  We spent a lot of time together and he really was my mentor, much of the time just giving gentle advice about how to live and especially how to conduct fieldwork.

I, of course, had no idea of how important their work was. I only read their papers when I was in Brazil. When I obtained my PhD and was on my way to Inpa in Manaus Tony said, “Charlwood, my boy, you should go far. May I suggest the Amazon?” Of course, once I realised how important Tony’s work has been I applied for and managed to get a small grant from the British Council for him to come and teach me mosquito age grading. We spent many weeks in Aripuana by the Dardanelles waterfalls in the Mato Grosso. This was a place only accessible by light aircraft. Navigation then meant following river systems until the mist from the waterfall could be seen A wrongly chosen river had meant that a pilot the previous week had ended up in Bolivia.  All the while we were there Tony would wave his 'little green book', that had all the results in it around.  'My Little Green Book' was a constant refrain.  To round off Tony’s visit we went to the laboratory of Lainson and Shaw (another great double act working on sandflies) to see if the dissection technique could be applied to sandflies (it could). This in Belem by the mouth of the Amazon (it rains every day during the dry season in Belem – in the wet season it rains all day). Tony and I were staying in the grounds of the Museo Goeldi and had asked to be woken at 5 in the morning so that he could catch the plane to Rio and then back to the UK. We went out for a meal and by chance bumped into the Boys from Belem – Lainson et al. including Richard Ward. Many caipirinhas were drunk (I can remember the start of the evening but not the end). A loud thunderstorm woke us 30 minutes before Tony’s plane was due to take off. Panic stations but somehow we got to the airport as the plane was about to taxi to take off. Because Tony had a ticket to the UK they stopped the plane and let him get on – all the while the rain pouring down as only tropical rain can do. The journey involved four intermediate stops. Tony said that he got on the plane soaking wet and the next thing he remembered was waking up bone dry as the plane approached Rio!  He forgot the little green book in the taxi!! (fortunately, we had made a photocopy before leaving Manaus)!

When Gillies retired Tony did a spot of navel gazing in preparation to be a security guard, but was picked up by the next 'main man', Chris Curtis, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. This bought Tony’s mosquito days full circle. He and Dorothy returned to Muheza. I was in Ifakara at the time and visited them there. They later came to Ifakara. It was then that we got to know and like Dorothy better. It was with Tony that we found the dry season hiding place of Anopheles gambiae in the Kilombero Valley, when most populations had all but disappeared. Tony came to my laboratory in the village of Namawala and immediately gave my three young (and competent) entomological assistants 'pipi' (a sweetie). They were moon faced from then onwards (the kind of 'Could he possibly marry me?') kind of face. As I say, people loved him.

After Muheza Tony’s sandfly life began in earnest with another renowned entomologist, Bob Killick-Kendrick.  Summers were spent in the south of France and, as always, much work was done to a backdrop of good humour.

Tony was a Stoke man through and through. An avid football supporter (he has a season ticket) and so returned to his roots when he himself retired. He must have enjoyed that after being so many years away (despite the fact that Stoke were no longer in the Premier League).

I have been laughing as I remember our times together. What better legacy can you have?  He will be missed, but as we remember him we will more than likely remember and smile.

Derek Charlwood


Back in 1994, when I was undertaking my PhD studies on malaria mosquitoes in Muheza, it was Tony and Dorothy that made my stay there unforgettable. Their hospitality was truly amazing and considering that their house was right opposite the guesthouse where I stayed, we met often. This was always, always, great fun. Decades of interesting stories, that Tony loved to tell, went along with ice-cold beers. Dorothy at the time was looking after a bushbaby (‘daudi’ in Swahili) which got her the name in town: ‘Mama daudi’. There was even a small little room in the house for the bushbaby and whenever we travelled, the bushbaby would cuddle up in Dorothy’s lap and sleep there during the journey. Both of them were so kind to me in those days that I vividly remember that during a dinner in Dar es Salaam at the infamous Palm Beach Hotel I called them ‘my second parents’. We lost track of each other until the sad news of Tony’s passing reached me through one of his grandchildren. Tony will now live on in our memories, and will not be forgotten. He was a great person indeed.

Bart Knols