Raymond Robert Forster QSO DSc NZ Otago FRSNZ FESNZ FMANZ


Ray Forster


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Born on 19 June 1922 in Hastings, New Zealand, to an entrepreneurial father, Ray Forster had a rich and dynamic life. Ray recalled being knocked to the ground as he waited to enter school in Hastings, as the 1930 earthquake so tragically rocked the city. His interest in insects budded one year later. His father, who traded in diverse things including small forms of life (birds, fish, mice), afforded him the garage space to pursue his invertebrate interests. By age 13, he had amassed many collections and was appointed Honorary Keeper at the Napier Museum. Two years later, Ray’s mother died of tuberculosis and his father soon remarried. But at age 15, the new family unit was no longer welcoming and Ray moved out to forge his own way. No doubt tucked firmly in his consciousness was his father’s pronouncement (here paraphrased) that "it is fine to study these things as a hobby but you’ll never make a living out of them".

Ray acquired a number of diverse skills. He was employed as a teacher trainee for the Public Trustee in Wellington and during this period his knowledge of the Bankrupty Act grew and later served him well. He became a highly accomplished diver but did not pursue it further or swim at all except for a successful rescue of a friend in his naval service (1942 – 1945) during which he was a radar mechanic during the war.

Although WWII may have stilled his academic ascension, it in no way dampened his enthusiasm. "Bugs" Forster was well known for taking respites from light revelry to hunt insects that came to night lights. On one occasion, a feverish chase by Ray and his group rendered a flower garden somewhat the worse for wear! Often, his invertrebrate catch required a stiff preservative – typically 100% proof alcohol or better. Undeterred, the inventive Ray set up a still. However, with such a highly sought refreshment, many tongues had to be stilled, and Ray had to brew more to keep enough for his collection. Evidently, his ship was laying just off Hiroshima as the first atomic bomb was dropped (6 August 1945). By all accounts, Ray enjoyed the war service and greatly relished the access to diverse horizons to enhance his zoological collections and he was certainly one of the better "characters" of the period.

As a first-year undergraduate at university (1945), Ray first met his wife-to-be, Lyn, and his clarity of vision and purpose was already evident: in answer to the question from Lyn (in second year), "What subjects are you doing?", Lyn recalled that Ray answered simply "A doctorate". They married in 1948 when Ray was awarded his MSc.

At age 18, Ray was noted pouring over insect displays at the Dominion Museum (now the Museum of New Zealand) and was summarily offered the job as Entomologist which he held from 1940 to 1947. From there, he became Zoologist and Assistant Director of the Canterbury Museum (1948-57). Despite his administrative duties, he firmly maintained research activities and his focus fell squarely on arachnids, initially the smaller orders (Opiliones), and eventually on spiders. In 1957, he was appointed Director of the Otago Museum, Dunedin until his "retirement" in 1987.

Ray was the single greatest source of arachnological wisdom and his geographical domain was no less than the world. His quiet manner endeared him to all. Combined with his truly rare and remarkable knowledge and thirst for more, Ray’s drive propelled him to be the leading arachnologist in his day and he carried the Otago Museum into the dizzy heights of world importance. In recognition for his contribution to science, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1961, and of the Entomological Society of New Zealand in 1995. He was awarded the Hutton Medal (RSNZ, 1971), The Queen’s Jubilee Medal (1978), and the Hector Medal (1983), and also in 1983 was awarded a QSO (Companion Queen’s Service Order for Community Service). For his services to the Museum community he was made a Fellow of the Art Galleries and Museum’s Association of New Zealand.

Spiders are important creatures to western cultures as they inspire fear and dreading. Hence, they feature commonly in medically important envenomations and simple public concerns. Ray fielded all those questions from medical doctors and public alike. Despite his passion for research and the duties of Director, Ray was always generous with his advice, warmly and openly given, to aspiring scholars in invertebrates. With all this came a gentle humility and clear recognition of what he considered a limited understanding and burning passion to advance the frontiers of his knowledge. Clearly, an early goal was the documentation (description and naming) of the New Zealand spider fauna. No sooner did the first 2 of these studies begin to appear (Spiders of New Zealand), than demand on his knowledge and identification climbed further. Ray worked on more steadily than furiously. Each step was carefully documented, often duplicate records kept. There seemed no limit to the breadth and depth of his knowledge and interest. Remarkably, too, until the very end, his recall was truly legendary, actively replaying his hard-won knowledge back to budding scholars who so often sent their manuscripts to Ray for comment, improvement or perhaps simply his approving nod.

His self-image was clearly high and yet always he proudly maintained that he was an "amateur arachnologist". Perhaps he saw the pattern in England, where the deep and abiding love and fascination with their wildlife, presumably ensures that the knowledge of their "amateur" arachnologists, among others, far outweighs that of the few remaining professionals.

His approach to projects was always consistent: know all that you can first and then be ready for new vistas opened by technologies like scanning electron microscopes.

Ray valued the discovery of new species and their documentation (the out-of-vogue alpha taxonomy) but the depth of breadth of his knowledge also placed him in the strongest position to propose and test scientific hypotheses of relationships, evolution or phylogeny, and the interrelationships of geographic regions both global and local. Hence, he was often co-author with other international arachnologists who so highly valued his contribution.

Amidst Ray’s rich knowledge base was an attention to anatomical detail, extraordinary patience and skills envied now by microsurgeons. Ray described the then world’s smallest spider, Patu marplesi, totally 0.46 mm long. The description, made only by light microscopy, was no less rich in detail than that of New Zealand’s biggest spider and the spider was totally intact. Ray became an experienced anatomist, examining in great detail the internal anatomy of spiders (many by serial section), often shunned by the world. Ironically, one of Ray’s most dramatic and hard-won findings was on the importance of the respiratory system (tracheae) in the classification of spiders.

Working through his manuscripts in progress, a remarkable further insight into the process and thinking of Ray Forster emerges. Most of us describe the specimens first and add the flesh and figures later. Perhaps here is our weakness as the closing 5% of (routine) work takes almost 95% of the time (for mere mortals, at least). Ray seemed to do the boring first and hence left the easy part to the last.

Ray was also an excellent, relentless and inveterate wildlife photographer. His interests unfaltered by the possibility that others had been there before, Ray documented them all – scene, flower, fruit, tree and animals, alike. His love of photography did not stop at the macroscopic but followed him into the microscopic world, where he pioneered new lighting techniques. He relentlessly pushed the boundaries to attain higher quality images both while they were being captured and also through development and printing.

His love of the bush and wildlife thereby also made him a prime source of knowledge and wisdom on spider conservation.

Ray held two DScs. The first in 1953 was awarded by application (University of New Zealand), and the second by honour (Otago, 1978). To aspiring PhD students, he would often hold even higher aloft the DSc, perhaps as it also showed that you could produce in the real world not just as a thesis.

Ray loved reading books of all kinds and was a great patron of libraries. He loved to garden and walk but also he was a brilliant collector with mere speck-of-dust spiders drawing his undivided attention as he waited patiently over a mound of sieved leaf litter for his highly prized microscopic spiders to move.

The enduring quality, breadth and depth of Ray’s research, however, came only with the total, unquestioning and eternal support of his wife, Lyn. Clearly, Ray had a vision and, as so rarely can happen, his partner shared that vision. Never was this shared vision so clearly seen as in the two books on New Zealand spiders in 1973 and 1999. Despite the youthful status of published knowledge on spiders in New Zealand, Ray and Lyn pushed forward with rich new accounts, brilliant illustrations and outstanding photographs. Rarely are such books written by the fonts of wisdom itself; no neighbouring country could boast such a work. As events diminished the possibility of publication of Ray’s next scientific volume, their attention in 1997 swung strongly back to a rewrite of their popular book. This book, rebuilt entirely, and drawing only on structure and lesser on illustrations from the first, took a mighty toll on both their healths. Lyn, already quite sick, clawed herself up and by accounts seemed to draw upon the last shreads of her energy to brave the launch of Spiders of New Zealand (II). Then battered by a stroke after her third stroke, the Lyn that was quietly faded into a literal shadow of her former self. Ray now lost for some time without his co-visionary partner and losing heart of her improvement fell hard and terminally to the blows of aggressive lung cancer.

Ray’s contribution to the museum was no less energetic or auspicious than his scientific career. He devoted enormous energy to the betterment of the museum and its staff both in finance and in spirit. Clearly, the climax of his museum career was securing Te Māori for the Otago Museum and the Māori Hall. Despite his heavy schedule as Director and Arachnologist, Anthony Harris noted that in conversations with former staff, Ray’s approachability and helpfulness came to the fore. He was reported as excellent to work for, open-minded, non-discriminatory, and always gave positive encouragement but was modest about his own acheivements for which he sought no publicity.

As another leading arachnologist, Professor Norman Platnick, so aptly wrote on the news of Ray’s death, "The universe feels very empty." I hope that one day all of his children will fully know the wonderful contribution he made to the world and to science and this will only warm their vivid memories of their father.

This work has been far richer and more pleasureable through the diverse memories of daughter Marjorie and son Doug, to whom I will always be grateful. Those personal contacts were made possible by a trip funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand (Hutton Fund) and the American Museum of Natural History (Terry Sedgwick Fund) during which I was able to strategise and order Ray’s working lab.

Dr Robert J. Raven