Gerald Harvey Thompson
OBE. MA. MSc. (Oxon). Hon. FRPS. (1917-2002)
1975 Silver Medal Zoological Society of London for Contributions to the Understanding and Appreciation of Zoology: ‘Gerald Thompson, Director Oxford Scientific Films Ltd., in recognition of your work as a pioneer and leader of a team making zoological films of great educational value and high scientific quality’
1976 Christopher Award (Oxford Scientific Films)
1981 Officer of The Order of The British Empire awarded for Services to the Film Industry.
1983 Honorary Fellow of The Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain ‘For your pioneering work in the cinephotomacrography of living insects and for instigating the formation of the film production unit known as Oxford Scientific Films’
1998 Wildscreen Panda Award for Outstanding Achievement. The Awards Ceremony is the occasion during which The Wildscreen Trust bestows its Panda for Outstanding Achievement, recognising the contribution made by an individual or organisation to wildlife film-making and/or the public’s understanding of conservation issues.
Born in Brighton, England, in 1917, Gerald moved to Scotland with his parents and spent his early years living in the concrete jungle of inner Glasgow. It was during this time that he developed his passionate interest in natural history.
Until the age of twelve he was educated at Hyndland Secondary School, Glasgow, after which he attended Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby from 1929-1936. He was Head Boy in 1936.
He knew from an early age that he wanted to be a zoologist and two men at Lawrence Sheriff School made this dream a reality. On entering the 6th Form Gerald asked to take Zoology as his main subject for Higher National certificate (‘A’ level equivalent). This was in 1933 and the subject was not included in the School teaching syllabus. The Headmaster, Cordy Wheeler, pointed out that there was neither teacher nor facilities for practical work at Lawrence Sheriff but that he would see what could be done. A few days later he told Gerald that the geography master, Wilfred Kings – who had taken a Degree in Biology eighteen years earlier – had agreed to teach him, largely in his spare time. As a sixteen year old Gerald had no conception of what this entailed; little did he know that for two years Wilfred researched and wrote to keep one lecture ahead of him. In later years he came to appreciate the disruption to Wilfred’s home life for even Sunday mornings were spent doing practicals in the biology laboratory of Rugby School which kindly lent their facilities. (Wilfred Kings was given leave of absence from Lawrence Sheriff School in 1938 when, aged 20, Gerald was invited to join The Oxford University expedition to the Cayman Islands; Wilfred was included in the expedition as Botanist on Gerald’s recommendation, and hence their partnership was renewed. The Pond – a book by Gerald and Oxford Scientific Films was dedicated by Gerald to the memory of Wilfred Kings 1889-1980 – ‘a great teacher and a wonderful friend’.
1936-1939 Gerald read Zoology at St Edmund Hall, Oxford University. He had been awarded a County Exhibition. Secretaryship of The Oxford University Entomological Society 1938.
1938 Invited to be assistant entomologist on the Oxford University Exploration Club six month expedition to the three Cayman Islands in the West Indies. The purpose of the trip was to make a biological survey of the the islands.
1939-1940 Volunteered at the outbreak of war and was sent by the Joint Recruiting Board to The Royal College of Science, London, to read a one year entomology course to study ways of protecting food from insect infestation – (the College was evacuated to the Pest Infestation Laboratory at Slough for the duration of the war). Britain’s war effort included heavy stock-piling of food; these stores were likely to be contaminated by insects. Measures to prevent the infestation of warehouses had high priority in 1939, but the Government intention of making Gerald an inspector of stored grain was frustrated by the German bombers along the south coast – particularly around Bristol – who reached the silos first. Most of London’s warehouses had also been bombed out. Therefore, he had no job to go to. He applied to join the Navy and was accepted but then a letter arrived from the War Office who decided that since he had received a Scholarship from The Colonial Office to read Forestry at The Forestry Commonwealth Institute he would be better suited for training in the Royal Artillery – deemed to be more useful in the Colonies where it was intended he should go.
1940 July – November: Royal Artillery basic training with the 3rd Field Regiment at Fort Brockhurst (Gosport, Hants) then Manchester after it was decided Fort Brockhurst was too dangerous due to the presence of an airfield in close proximity. Selected as a potential Officer – awaited a vacancy at Catterick OCTU (Officer Cadet Training Unit).
1940: November: Ordered by The War Office to return to St. Edmund Hall Oxford to read the first year of the Forestry Degree due to the fact he had been awarded a Scholarship from The Colonial Office to read Forestry at The Forestry Commonwealth Institute. Gerald thought he would be taking up the Scholarship after the war and had no idea it would lead to his being released from the Army. on November 22nd, 1940 he was ordered to return home to Rugby for one night and to go to Oxford the following day. During that night in Rugby, Coventry was heavily bombed.
1940-1941 First year of Forestry degree course – based on a Colonial Services Forestry Scholarship. Junior Common Room President 1940. 1941-43 Probationary tour as Assistant Conservator of Forests in Ghana (Gold Coast) West Africa.
1943-1944 Completion of Forestry Degree. Junior Common Room President.
1944-1949 Colonial Forestry Service, Ghana (Gold Coast). 1946 MSc (Oxford) awarded for thesis on Gold Coast Forest Coleoptera.
1950-1968 University Lecturer in Forest Zoology, University of Oxford.
In December 1949 Gerald left the Gold Coast and started work at the Commonwealth Forestry Institute in Oxford on January 16th, 1950. The change from living in the jungle to teaching undergraduates and dining in college was something of a cultural shock, but at 32 years of age Gerald soon adapted to the new life. 1951 saw him travelling to temperate forests to familiarise himself with their insect problems; after one month with the Swedish Entomological survey he travelled to Canada – visiting all nine research stations across Canada, ending on Vancouver Island – taking colour photographs and collecting insects for his teaching courses as he went. The trip lasted three and a half months.
On returning to Oxford Gerald started his research project; the Alder Woodwasp and its four parasitoids. In 1954 he began a line of research which was to have unforeseen consequences. For the next five years he made a detailed study of the Alder Woodwasp, Xiphydria camelus – a very local insect about which little was known. His studies showed that the woodwasp was parasitised by four different kinds of insect, each using a different method. The inter-relationships were complicated and some of the behaviour patterns were new to science. To show these Gerald took up colour photography so that he could use projected transparencies in his teaching. However, animal behaviour can only be shown properly on cine film and he began to explore ways and means of making a movie record of the woodwasp story. To this end he bought a 16mm Bolex cine camera on 16th March, 1960.
The next need was to develop techniques for close-up cinematography since the insects ranged in size from two inches to one eighth of an inch i.e. too small for conventional photographic methods and too large to film through a microscope. Eventually all the problems were solved and the result was a film shown on the BBC in 1961 on the “Look” programme called “The Alder Woodwasp and its Insect Enemies” The film went on to win awards in many countries around the world, and has been included in the teaching syllabus of many universities and schools. Gerald is acclaimed as the pioneer of cinephotomacrography.
Having been a ‘bug’ hunter all his life, Gerald now found the tables had been turned and he had become the victim of the bug of cinematography. It was with great good fortune that Professor M V Laurie, a keen photographer, was Head of The Commonwealth Institute of Forestry. He was keenly interested in Gerald’s proposed departure from the normal duties of a university lecturer and gave him permission to make educational films on a self-financing basis, instead of pursuing scientific research. Gerald’s activities were certainly unconventional, even by Oxford standards, and drew adverse comments from some older academics – although younger teachers gave enthusiastic support.
During the next nine years Gerald made nineteen educational films on such subjects as stickleback behaviour, tiger beetles, spiders, butterflies and moths – all of which appeared on television. These original films are still in demand today – and indeed clips from some of these films have been used for the At-Bristol science and art centre – a £97m Millennium project which brings science, nature and art to life. He also produced short films for the new Nuffield biology syllabus. The attraction of full-time filming began to loom larger and in 1968 there came the opportunity for Gerald to start a film career.
1968 Resigned as University Lecturer in Forest Zoology, University of Oxford
1968-1982 Professional Film-maker – Senior Founding Member, Oxford Scientific Films. While on a visit to the United States the Ealing Corporation, distributors of short biological films for education, told Gerald that they wished to expand their catalogue by more than eighty titles. They offered to provide the capital to enable five people – including Gerald’s son David who had worked with him for several years, to form a commercial company to make the films. And so Oxford Scientific Films Ltd. was created, and in 1969 custom-made buildings were erected in the old quarry in Gerald’s garden and at the age of 52 Gerald resigned his university post and ventured into the unknown.
The success of Oxford Scientific Films is known throughout the world, having developed an international reputation for its natural history documentaries, special effects and the extensive collection of wildlife and natural science images in its photo and film libraries.
1999 Gerald was filmed by the at-Bristol team for their archive material. Arkive is a digital library of films and photographs, preserved for all time, of the species and habitats of the natural world. Included in Arkive will be filmed interviews with pioneering wildlife film-makers.
2000 – Gerald become the non-executive President of World Educational Films Ltd. – a Company set up by his son David (himself a Co-founder of Oxford Scientific Films and a renowned wildlife cameraman), his daughter Patricia who inspired the beginnings of the new Company and Stephen Evans – a physicist with a Masters in Computer Engineering.
The Company was set up to promote and market Gerald’s original films- the copyrights to which are owned by Patricia Harvey-Thompson. The Alder Woodwasp and Its Insect Enemies was the first of these films to be digitally enhanced and updated with new commentary. Gerald’s expertise and advice proved to be invaluable in the setting up of World Educational Films Ltd.
2002 – Gerald passed away and his daughter Patricia Harvey-Thompson decided to continue with World Educational Films but no longer as a Limited Company. David Thompson retired from film making. Patricia has continued to promote and market her father’s films with the assistance of her husband Stephen Evans, and now produces her own series of natural history films for children on The Story of Black Bun.
Patricia acknowledges the debt of gratitude she owes to her father for the confidence he showed in her abilities to run World Educational Films and for his comment ‘Pip, you never cease to amaze me’.