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Obituary: Prof Richard Hunt 1939 - 2021

August 4, 2021 - 11:35 -- Malaria World


By Lizette Koekemoer, Wits Research Institute For Malaria

It is with great sadness that we have to share with you that Prof Richard Hunt passed away on the 18th of June 2021. This is indeed a huge loss for entomology on the African continent and our hearts goes out to Maureen and Tammy for their loss. Richard was one of the true field entomologists of his time and has trained many of us in the past. RiP

The late Professor Richard Hewish Hunt was born in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1939. He obtained an Advanced Laboratory Technician's Certificate in Zoology, London City and Guilds, in 1969, followed by an MSc with distinction from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1984, and a PhD titled ‘Cytogenetic and electrophoretic studies of cryptic species of mosquitoes’ also from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1989. Richard began his professional career as a technician at the Bilharzia and Malaria Research Laboratory, Harare, working on epidemiological field surveys of malaria and schistosomiasis. He then took on the role of research officer at the Tobacco Research Board, Harare, followed by that of senior technician at the Blair Research Laboratory, Harare, working on malaria vector research and control. In the late 1970s he was employed as a senior technologist in the Department of Medical Entomology, South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR), Johannesburg. He was appointed to the position of Head of the Department of Medical Entomology, SAIMR in 1989 until his retirement in 1995, following which he was a consultant to the SAIMR.  Richard was appointed as Honorary Professor, Wits Research Institute for Malaria and School of Animal, Plant & Environmental Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand from 1998, and was a consultant to the Vector Control Reference Laboratory, National Institute for Communicable Diseases, a division of the National Health Laboratory Service, for the rest of his career. He was also consulted by several commercial entities on malaria control and conducted work in this field on behalf of WHO/TDR, WHO/AFRO and WHO/EMRO.

Richard authored/co-authored 117 research and review articles during his career. He supervised/co-supervised 26 post-graduate students at the MSc and PhD levels, and is fondly remembered as a highly motivational mentor.  He received several awards during his career including the Elsdon Dew Medal for excellence in parasitology in 2009. He was a nominated Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society of London and the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene. 

Richard was deeply committed to his work as a disease vector biologist, geneticist and public health professional, and dedicated more than 60 years of his life to research and policy-making in this field. This extraordinary contribution includes his pioneering work in mosquito taxonomy using cytogenetic and enzyme electrophoresis methods, and he was a major contributor to the body of work that unraveled the taxonomic conundrum of the Anopheles gambiae species complex and the An. funestus species group, both of which contain major malaria vectors (and non-vectors) of the sub-Saharan African region. This work provided the foundation for later PCR-based methods of species identification in these taxa, which now underpins malaria vector operational research and control interventions in Africa.

He was an extraordinary field entomologist and spent countless hours collecting Anopheles mosquitoes from many of Africa’s most remote regions. During his career he visited most African countries at least once, and developed a particularly keen ability to find Anopheles mosquitoes using deep experience and insight. This enabled the gathering of critical surveillance information for many malaria vector control programmes, both governmental and commercial. One notable example is his contribution to unravelling the entomological drivers of the malaria epidemic that occurred in South Africa during the period 1996 to 2001. During a field visit to northern KwaZulu-Natal Province in 1999, a handful of wild-collected An. funestus group mosquitoes were exposed to a resistance-diagnostic dose of pyrethroid insecticide, and a couple survived. This critical piece of information necessitated an urgent and excited phone call – so typical of Richard’s infectious enthusiasm for his work – that ultimately led to re-establishing control and ending the malaria epidemic, and to the development of one of the world’s most successful insecticide resistance management programmes to date.

Richard was also a pioneer in the establishment of Anopheles mosquito laboratory colonies from wild-collected material. This is a particularly refined and laborious process that involves tireless field work followed by long hours in the insectary, and requires deep insight into mosquito ecology and behavior. Richard’s dedication to this task enabled the establishment of laboratory colonies of several Anopheles species, including the first stable colony of the major malaria vector An. funestus Giles. These colonies have consistently provided invaluable material for a wide range of research studies conducted by many research institutions over several decades. Many of these studies have in turn provided critical information for malaria vector control, and have enabled the tabling of control policies based on sound evidence. An important feature of these studies has and continues to be the characterization of insecticide resistance mechanisms in vector species, and Richard contributed to many of these. 

Richard has left an important legacy in the field of disease vector biology and control. He will be fondly remembered for his deep insight, energy, enthusiasm, innovative ideas, attention to detail, dedication to his work and to his insistence on excellence. He was a great mentor, colleague and friend, and will be sorely missed.