Professor Judith Masters, 1956 – 2022
By Dr Gavin Whitelaw
On the 3rd of October 2022, Professor Judith Masters and her partner Dr Fabien Génin were found bound and murdered at their home in Hogsback, Eastern Cape. Their computers are missing. Both scholars had recently retired from the University of Fort Hare, although they were still active in research and associated with various institutions around the world. Prior to joining Fort Hare, Judith served as Assistant Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum from July 1998 to January 2007. She joined the museum from Wits University where she had acquired her PhD in 1985 under the supervision of Professor Hugh Paterson, who created the innovative Mate-Recognition Concept for defining sexually reproducing species. Following Paterson’s paradigm-shifting example, Judith established herself as the leading South African specialist on tooth-combed primates (lemurs, bushbabies and lorises). Her research covered their evolution, diversity and distribution and her mentors included luminaries such as Stephen Jay Gould (during a two-year post-doc at Harvard University in the USA).
Gould was renowned for his role in the public understanding of science and for his challenges of racist and otherwise discriminatory thinking. Judith was of like mind and after completing her PhD she lectured part-time at Wits and taught extra-curricular classes to black students. In 1986 she co-authored a letter to Nature arguing that South African scientists should be allowed to participate in the international science network provided that they personally declared their rejection of discriminatory practices based on race, sex or religion. Her concern was that South African scientists might find it easy to hide behind the liberal reputation of institutions that employed (some of) them; rather, they should reveal their ‘true colours’ with regard to apartheid.
Judith’s appointment at the KwaZulu-Natal Museum coincided broadly with the retirement or departure of some of its senior researchers. She helped the museum maintain its long commitment to research and publication through her mentoring of less experienced scholars, including her supervision of post-graduate students. She taught at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and contributed to the museum’s educational environment. Among other things, Judith designed the museum’s first public gallery dedicated to primates – complete with brachiating bars – and contributed to a display on human evolution; she raised funds for upgrades of the natural science galleries and to train environmental educators; and provided scientific advice for the children’s book Bushbaby Night by Jeremy Grimsdell, published in both Zulu and English.
Judith returned to her Eastern Cape roots in moving to Fort Hare. There, she established the research programme African Primate Initiative for Ecology and Speciation (APIES), which concentrated on local baboons and vervet and samango monkeys. She was the top-rated scientist at Fort Hare. According to former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Rob Midgley, she was a traditional academic and a leader in all aspects of university life. She was uncompromising on quality and demanded high standards from her peers and students, leading always by example. The horrific deaths of Judith and her partner have stolen life from all South Africa.