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Sir Robert May AC Kt
, 1999

by Polly Borland

type C photograph (image: 48.7 cm x 38.7 cm)

Robert May, Baron May of Oxford OM AC (b. 1936), physicist, chemical engineer, chemist and mathematician, once described himself as a ‘scientist with a short attention span.’ Born and educated in Sydney, where he received his PhD in experimental physics in 1959, he lectured at Harvard, Sydney and Princeton before taking up a joint professorship at Imperial College London and Oxford. He was chief scientific adviser to the British government from 1995 to 2000 and president of the Royal Society from 2000 to 2005; he was a crossbench member of the House of Lords from 2001 until 2017. Created a life peer in 2001, in 2007 he received the Copley Medal from the Royal Society; his other honours are copious in the extreme. His primary interests involve structure and dynamics of ecosystems – which he has expanded to examine other networks, like banking systems – and their response to disturbances. Residing in Oxford, May is now urging coordinated action on climate change.

Polly Borland photographed May in London in 1999. He holds a stuffed thylacine – a species that became extinct the year he was born - as a mark of his continued interest in population change. He said that holding it made him feel as if he had wandered into a Monty Python sketch.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2001
Accession number: 2001.56