Dr. Phillip Clancey was a Director of the Durban Natural History Museum, and Art Gallery for three decades, and was President of the SA Museums Association, and is appropriately recognized for his work, on the SANS Honours Board.



Dr Phillip Alexander Clancey, Director of the Durban Natural Science Museum from 1932 to 1982, passed away on 18 July 2001 at the age of 83.

    Dr Clancey was born on 26 September 1917 in Glasgow, Scotland. His family subsequently moved to London and then to Switzerland where he started school. By the age of seven he was back in Scotland where he attended several schools in the South Side of Glasgow before studying at the Glasgow School of Art as a young man. He served with the Allied forces in Sicily and Italy during World War II, escaping death by the narrowest of margins on several occasions and he was deafened in one ear for over two months by an artillery explosion. He was de-mobbed in 1946 and was employed by an engineering consortium in the north of England for a few years. Ornithology and museums, however, were his abiding passions and in 1948-1949 he accompanied Col. Richard Meinertzhagen on an ornithological expedition to eastern and southern Africa, and the Middle East that included Yemen, Aden, Somali, Kenya and South Africa. This watershed expedition was to catapult him into a professional career that merged both interests.

    He immigrated to South Africa in August 1950 to take up the post of Curator of the Natal Museum in Pietermaritzburg. He was appointed Director of the Durban Museum and Art Gallery on 1 January 1952 and held this post until his retirement over 30 years later on 25 September 1982.

    The present-day Durban Natural Science Museum is overwhelmingly a product of Dr Clancey’s skill and penchant for sheer hard work. On assuming the reins of the Museum in 1952, he swiftly implemented a methodical plan aimed to take the institution to the forefront of modern Museum display standards. Within an astonishing two-and-half years the bird gallery (now known as the P.A. Clancey Gallery) was complete. The mammal gallery, which was only partially complete on Dr Clancey’s arrival, was his next target and by the end of 1957 this task too had been completed. Marine, geology, palaeontology, human pre-history, reptile and insect displays followed in short order and by 1973 Dr Clancey’s vision for the Museum had been fulfilled; a remarkable revamping that took him some 20 years.

    His artistic talents are evident in the many bird paintings presented in his books and in the dioramas on display in the Durban Natural Science Museum. He re-painted some of the dioramas up to six times until they matched his exacting standards. Several million visitors to the Museum have enjoyed these displays since their unveiling. His avian portraits remain in high demand by collectors of fine African art; for example his work has graced the boardrooms of companies such as Barlow Rand.

    It might be expected that the demanding developments in the public areas would have left little time for other Museum endeavours. Not so, Dr Clancey was almost single-handedly responsible for amassing the collection of some 32 000 bird study skins housed in the Bird Department of the Museum. Dr Clancey’s skill in the preparation of bird skins was renowned and the Museum’s collection, the third largest in Africa, is widely acknowledged as the finest on the continent. Dr Clancey organised some 26 major expeditions in Africa during the course of compiling this collection. His trips to Mozambique were the most noteworthy and resulted in the largest collection of material in existence from this poorly known region. His discovery of the Lemon-breasted Canary Serinus citrinipectus, a species new to science, and of the southern Mozambique population of the Olive-headed Weaver Ploceus olivaceiceps were particular highlights of these Mozambique investigations. Dr Clancey’s success in placing the Museum at the forefront of African ornithology is reflected in the large number of eminent ornithologists that have served here during and after his tenure, including Walter Lawson, Richard Brooke, Clive Quickelberge, Ian Sinclair, Dr John Mendelsohn and Dr Aldo Berruti.

    Even after retirement, Dr Clancey was still a familiar sight in the corridors of the Museum. In the last few years of his life he donated a substantial sum of money to the Museum’s Trust Fund that was used to establish ‘The Phillip Clancey Fund’. He also generously donated the original artwork from his book ‘The Rare Birds of Southern Africa’ to the Museum. His largess to this institution continued even after his death and he bequeathed the original bird paintings that had hung in his hotel bedsitter to the Trust. He remained a Research Associate of the Durban Natural Science Museum until the date of his passing. Dr Clancey is survived by two nieces who reside in Scotland.

    The honours bestowed on Dr Clancey were many. Pre-eminent among these was the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa conferred on him by the University of Natal in 1981. He served as President of the Southern African Museums Association and was awarded a Fellowship by the Museums Association in London. He served as President of the Southern African Ornithological Society, was the long-standing Chairman of its List Committee, and was awarded Honorary Life Membership by this organisation. The American Ornithologists’ Union honoured him by appointing him as a Corresponding Fellow. He was also a long-standing Chairman of the Natal Bird Club (now BirdLife Port Natal) during the Club’s formative years and subsequently served as its President.

    Dr Clancey was a prodigious scientific author on the subject of African birds, especially their taxonomy with a particular interest in the identification of subspecies. Examples of his many catalogues and books include his Catalogue of the Birds of the South African subregion (1965-1972), Handlist of the Birds of Southern Mozambique (1970-1972), for which he was awarded the prestigious Gill Memorial Medal of the Southern African Ornithological Society (now BirdLife South Africa), The Birds of Natal and Zululand (1964), The Gamebirds of Southern Africa (1967), The Rare Birds of Southern Africa (1985) and Kingfishers of Sub-Saharan Africa (1992). He was the chief editor of the influential S.A.O.S. Checklist of Southern African Birds (1980). Dr Clancey was a co-author of the second volume of the landmark Atlas of Speciation of African Birds, published by the British Museum (Natural History) during 1978. He also contributed as an author to The Atlas of Southern African Birds (1997). His list of other publications is even more impressive, running to a monumental total of over 530 scientific papers and associated articles. Indeed his legacy of taxonomic papers is unsurpassed and Dr Clancey named some 200 subspecies of southern African birds. Several avian subspecies have been named after him by others in his honour.

    Dr Clancey was a rare combination of outstanding administrator, artist, scientist and author. His immense contribution to this Museum and the other fields which he served speaks for itself and the meticulous dedication characteristic of his life’s work serves as an example for others working in the various endeavours which this man so ably mastered.


David G. Allan


DR Phillip Alexander Clancey 1917 – 2001