Jo Bossanyi (1938-1943)

Died in January 2021

The following tribute to Jo Bossanyi appeared in The Guardian on 1 Feb 2021.

My friend Jo Bossanyi, who has died aged 96, was an environmental scientist and lecturer whose approach to teaching was driven by his belief that a well-educated public would be key to addressing the alarming degradation of the natural world.

Jo was born in Lübeck, northern Germany, the only child of Ervin Bossanyi, a celebrated Hungarian stained glass artist, and Wilma (nee Maasz). The family fled from Nazi Germany to London in 1934, when Jo was 10, without a word of English. Four years later, he won a scholarship to Merchant Taylors’ School in Hertfordshire, and from there went in 1943 to St John’s College, Oxford, also on a scholarship, to read zoology.

After Oxford, he took a research post in marine biology at Millport, Great Cumbrae, part of Glasgow University, and then at Dove marine laboratory at Cullercoats, Newcastle University. There he developed a new plankton sampling technique for ocean health monitoring and launched extra-mural lecturing in biology and ecology for communities in the region. In his unpublished memoir, From Art to Zoology, completed shortly before his death, Jo recalls giving talks in Newcastle with his octopus, Octavius, in an aerated glass tank beside him. Octavius “shaking hands” with Jo was a great success with their audiences.

In 1957, he became a lecturer for London University external degrees at Watford College of Technology (now West Herts College) and then Regent Street Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster). Moving to Southampton University adult education department in 1963, he developed entirely new environmental science degree courses based on interdisciplinary approaches combining humanities with “hard” sciences, now known as human or social ecology. He took students to different climatic regions of the world to study the global dimensions of environmental degradation.

After retiring in 1985, he continued to travel, from personal interest in other environments and cultures but also to disperse his late father’s artwork in public collections around Britain and Europe. During this time he wrote an unpublished family history, completed in 1993 and entitled Shapes in the Mist, which highlights the devastating effects of the totalitarian politics that caused the deportation of his grandmother to Auschwitz and scattered his family and friends across the world. He also worked with a team of art specialists to co-edit a book about his father, Ervin Bossanyi, Vision, Art and Exile, published in 2008.

Jo married Lucie Gevaert, daughter of the Belgian artist Edgar Gevaert, in 1950. Their three children, Ilona, Ervin and Mark, were born in Northumberland.

Lucie and Jo separated in 1974 but remained friends until Lucie’s death in 1990. Jo is survived by Ilona, Ervin and Mark, four grandchildren, a great-grand-daughter, Nikki, and a great-grandson, Filip.

Robert Waterhouse


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