Obituary of Michael Gallagher

Submitted by admin on 15/08/2014

Obituary of Michael Gallagher, M.B.E., F.R.G.S., F.L.S.

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Michael Gallagher, who has died aged 92, was an outstanding naturalist, for whose services to wildlife conservation in Oman he was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in January 1994. His wartime service in the Royal Army Service Corps took him round the Cape of Good Hope to join the 8th Army in the Western Desert of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, after which he went to Sicily and mainland Italy, before returning to England to join the British Liberation Army for the Normandy landings to end the war in Germany. His further service took him back to the Middle East, Guyana and Christmas Island where his interest in natural history flourished in places where little study had so far been carried out.

On retiring from the British Army in 1976 in the rank of Major, he joined the Office for Conservation of the Environment in the Sultanate of Oman, where he continued his study of natural history, wrote The Birds of Oman and set up the Oman Natural History Museum. By the time he retired from the Oman Government in 1998 no fewer than 29 wildlife species had been named after him, including mammals, reptiles, insects, a scorpion, a fish, molluscs and a plant. The author of many scientific papers, popular articles and books, his achievements were celebrated with a seminar, resulting in a Festschrift book in his honour entitled ‘The Natural History of Oman’.

Michael Desmond Gallagher was born on 02 September 1921 and went to Ardingly where he shot in the school VIII. Following his father Brigadier Henry Gallagher, CBE, BSc, he joined the RASC as a volunteer on the outbreak of war and went to Sandhurst. Later he shot for his corps at Bisley. After the end of World War II he saw service in regimental and staff postings in Palestine, Gibraltar, BAOR, Guyana, Christmas Island, Bahrain and Sharjah. Adopting nature as a hobby, he led adventure training projects and was selected to join the 1974-75 Zaire River Expedition. His posting as DAQMG, Military Assistance Office, HQ British Forces Gulf in Bahrain led to close contacts with Oman. In 1973 he led a reconnaissance to study an area of the Jebel Al Akhdhar with a view to recommending boundaries for a national park. In 1975 he joined the first British Flora and Fauna Expedition to northern Oman and two years later led the second British Expedition to Dhofar. In January 1977 he joined the Office of the Adviser for Conservation of the Environment as Assistant Adviser (Field Studies) and was commissioned to write The Birds of Oman.

In 1982 he joined the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture under His Highness Sayyid Faisal bin Ali Al Said, where he established the Oman Natural History Museum and later extended it to include the Whale Hall and the Fossil Exhibition. Within the Museum he established the National Herbarium of Oman and its associated Botanic Garden, as well as the Shell and Coral Collections, the Insect, Invertebrate, Fossil, Osteological and other collections.

Michael’s quiet manner sometimes masked his strong passion for natural history. He received specialists and students alike with warmth and dedication to push forward research in the hands of all who were interested, whether as a hobby or as professionals. Once, when at dinner with a prominent Omani family, his hostess asked what species the bat was that had just swooped over them. Without a flicker he replied ‘Look at page so-and-so and you will find out.’ Only later did she discover that it was not a bat but a bird. Michael was such a gentleman that he would never have contradicted her in front of others. Even after retirement, he was able to display his meticulous command of detail and plain language, as both author and a Contributing Editor for The Journal of Oman Studies. The carpet of wild flowers on the sea front by his house would never have been there but for Michael’s persistence that influenced local affairs in his latter years.

In 1975 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was awarded the Zoological Society of London’s Stamford Raffles Award for 1993 in recognition of his “contributions to zoology, in particular to Arabian ornithology”. In 1994 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London. His bibliography extended to over 114 books, scientific papers and articles in popular journals, a record that would be the envy of many a university professor. He never married.

He died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of 27th July 2014.


David Insall

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Extracts from the many tributes that have so far come in include:

Mr Robert Alston CMG QSO DL, Chairman of The Anglo-Omani Society and former HBM Ambassador to Oman:

‘...I served as British Ambassador to Oman in the late 1980s whilst Michael was still here, working at the Natural History Museum.  He was at the same time a real gentleman and someone with a real determination to create for the first time a modern understanding of the country’s natural heritage.  His ‘Birds of Oman’, produced at about that time, remains the standard work and is in a class of its own.  Oman owes him full recognition as one of a pioneering generation...’

Dr David Harrison, Chairman of Trustees of the Harrison Institute:

‘..He did so much wonderful work around the world for Natural History and discovered so much. He will be sorely missed here and I was privileged to name an unknown bat species from Africa for him, still only known by the unique single specimen. The world has lost a great scientific explorer.’

Mr Ali bin Amer al Kiyumi, Adviser to the Minister of Environment and Climate Affairs, Sultanate of Oman:

‘...So sad to hear that our great man has passed away. We will always remember him.. He did a lot for Oman...’

Dr Mehdi bin Ahmed bin Jaaffar, Vice-President of the Environment Society of Oman and former Deputy Director of the Centre for Environmental Studies and Research, Sultan Qaboos University:

‘It is with a sense of sadness and profound grief to hear the sad news of the demise of Michael Gallagher. His departure to his heavenly abode signifies the end of an era of which he played a pivotal role. Oman conservationists will remember him dearly. I have come to know him and work with him for quite some time on joint projects  and have known him to be a man with vision coupled with hard work and dedication to the task at hand...’

Engineer Shawqi bin Abdurredha Sultan, Secretary-General of the Omani-British Friendship Association in Oman:

‘... it always saddens one to hear the news of a demise of a human being more so when that person was as caring, loyal, knowledgeable, honest and dedicated to his work as he was. He will leave an indelible mark on the many lives he touched. 

Many years ago when after one of the dinners at my home we were sitting in the garden sipping after dinner coffee a bird flew from one of the trees and Hayat my wife asked him what type of bat that was? ‘Look at page so and so and you can find out, he replied’. Later I did and much to my amusement discovered that it wasn't a bat but a bird. Here was a gentleman playing the role of a perfect guest by not contradicting the host!’

Dr Andrew Spalton, Adviser for Technical Affairs, HE The Minister of Diwan of Royal Court:

‘....I first got to know Michael when I joined the White Oryx project in 1987 and he would make collecting trips to our base at Jaaluni.  At other times I would take specimens of mammals, insects etc. that had died or been collected by us at Jaaluni to him at the museum. On one occasion I arrived at the museum late in the day with several cool boxes and even a dead oryx.  I presented my 'gifts' to Mike saying that they were all fully labelled - knowing his attention to detail and as a young biologist being slightly terrified of him!  As quick as a flash he went round to the front of my car and reappeared with a deadpan face saying 'and what about this one'.  My heart sank as he presented me with a desert lark that I must have hit on the road and was stuck in the radiator grill.  Needless to say it was very dead and not correctly labelled!   

Over the next 20 or so years I saw Mike many times when we were together on various committees and field trips. His professionalism was incredible....’


Anna Hywel Davies, Marine Biologist:

‘…….recovering a beached young Bryde's whale…… Michael and I spent the whole day working on that whale, right up until sundown when it was too dark to continue. If there had been floodlights available I think Michael would have continued. This anecdote is to highlight the extraordinary stamina that Michael had; as a fit, enthusiastic 21 year old I had difficulty at times during the day to keep up with him. He absolutely wanted us to free and take back to the museum the two lower jaw bones, which weren't exactly willing to be parted from the whole! We spent the best part of the day, knee deep in rotting whale flesh, standing in the remains of the head...Only Michael and I could tolerate the smell and tactile sensations that go with rotten whale dissection; the other two people with us tried to work alongside but couldn't keep up and so kept an olfactory distance from the site although they were responsible, from time to time, for keeping the large kitchen knives sharpened for us and keeping us hydrated for it was very hot and humid. I was ready to abandon the objective we had given ourselves but that was not an option for Michael and in the end we succeeded in freeing those jaw bones……

…..but I am, and shall always be, extremely grateful for the confidence he had in me and the gracious respect he always showed me.

I am most fortunate to crossed paths with this great man.’


Joy Ashworth, Senior Designer/Project Manager:

 ‘….Michael went on many exploratory field trips on his own in Oman as well as in a group, often staying for days at a time in very desolate places. A colleague in the navy remembered dropping Michael off on an uninhabited part of Masirah Island off the coast of Oman and told to come back for him in a week. (this was before the advent of mobile phones) It shows the nature of the man in that he was prepared to put up with hardship in order to further his knowledge of natural history…..

Without Michael’s tenacity and dedication the Natural History Museum would never have been created. It stands as a testimony to his life-long love of flora and fauna. The local staff who worked with him at the time still talk fondly of him today and with respect….’

WCdr (rtd) David Insall, WO, WKhM, late RAFO:

‘Michael fired my interest in the endangered Arabian tahr some 42 years ago and remained a hugely important mentor for me in all Oman’s natural history matters thereafter. ….. As a Contributing Editor of Volumes 11 to 14 of The Journal of Oman Studies, his sharp eye for detail and masterly command of plain English were both hugely important to the success of these volumes, which include his own opus magnum on the history and wildlife of the Kuria Muria Islands…..’