The loss of Professor Matthews


It is with great sadness that the friends of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands have learned of the passing of Professor Geoffrey Matthews at the age of 89, a long-time advocate for wetland and waterbird conservation and recognized as one of the four "Founding Fathers" of the Convention (with Luc Hoffmann, Erik Carp, and Eskandar Firouz). He was educated at Christ's College, Cambridge, and following the Second World War, during which he served with the Royal Air Force in the Indian Ocean, he returned to Cambridge and received his PhD in 1950. He remained at Cambridge thereafter, pursuing the research in migratory bird navigation for which he was justly famous and on which subject his book, published in 1955 with a second edition in 1968, became the classic reference.

In 1956, Prof Matthews became Director of Research at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, a post to which he dedicated the next 32 years of his life. As such, he was one of the leaders of the team of scientists at Sir Peter Scott's side that made such progress in knowledge of waterfowl biology from the 1950s onwards, and he became Honorary Director of what was then called IWRB (the International Wildfowl Research Bureau, then the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau, and now Wetlands International), succeeding Dr Luc Hoffmann in that role in 1969.

Geoffrey Matthews devoted a good part of his career to developing and promoting the concept of an intergovernmental convention on the conservation and wise use of wetland habitats and resources. The initial call for an international convention came in 1962 during a conference which formed part of Project MAR (from "MARshes", "MARécages", "MARismas"), a programme established in 1960 following concern at the rapidity with which large stretches of marshland and other wetlands in Europe were being "reclaimed" or otherwise destroyed, with a resulting decline in numbers of waterfowl.

The MAR Conference was organized by Dr Luc Hoffmann, with the participation of IWRB, IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature), and the International Council for Bird Preservation, ICBP (now BirdLife International), and was held in Les Saintes Maries-de-la-Mer in the French Camargue, 12-16 November 1962.

Over eight long years, a convention text was negotiated through a series of international meetings (St. Andrews, 1963; Noordwijk, 1966; Leningrad, 1968; Morges, 1968; Vienna, 1969; Moscow, 1969; Espoo, 1970), held mainly under the auspices of IWRB, the guidance of Prof Matthews, and the leadership of the government of the Netherlands. Finally, at an international meeting organized by Mr Eskander Firouz, Director of Iran's Game and Fish Department, and held in the Caspian seaside resort of Ramsar in Iran, at which Dr Matthews served as Rapporteur-General, the text of the Convention was agreed on 2 February 1971 and signed by the delegates of 18 nations the next day.

For nearly two decades after that, Prof Matthews remained closely involved with the growth and mission of the Ramsar Convention and participated actively in both the meetings of the Conference of the Parties through to Regina in 1987 and the early meetings of the Standing Committee through to 1988, the year of his retirement. He remained active in matters of waterbird research long after that as well, including at the 'Waterbirds around the World' conference in Edinburgh in April 2004.

Following his retirement, G. V. T. Matthews wrote the definitive history of the negotiations for a wetland convention and its subsequent development, The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands: its history and development, which was published by the Ramsar Bureau (or Secretariat) in 1993, and which has now been re-issued in PDF format in commemoration of his passing (

Michael Smart, who worked with Prof Matthews at IWRB for nearly 20 years and remained closely in touch with him after he himself joined the Ramsar Secretariat in Switzerland in 1988, in effect as Deputy Secretary General, recalls that "at one of the Ramsar Conferences he remarked that he would go to his grave with 'Ramsar' engraved on his heart, just as Mary Tudor said she would die with 'Calais' on hers."

Prof Matthews will be sorely missed by the Ramsar family, but his many contributions to our cause will always be remembered.

This and the photo at the top of this page, by Dougie Barnett Photography

A tribute from Sir Peter Scott on the occasion of Prof Matthews' retirement from WWT in 1988

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