Thomas Risley Odhiambo was a Kenyan entomologist and environmental activist who dedicated his life to scientific development in the African continent.
Born in Mombasa, Kenya, on February 4, 1931, Odhiambo came from a humble background, where he was the first of 10 children, and his father worked as a telegraph officer. He began to provide for his family and bear his and his siblings’ educational expenses from the young age of 11. Odhiambo’s passion for science was sparked after reading a copy of Man the Unknown by philosopher Alexis Carrel, gifted to him by his uncle. Although his father wanted him to become a farmer, his family wholeheartedly supported his decision and gave him the freedom to choose his path.
In 1953, Odhiambo graduated from Makakere University College in Kampala, Uganda, with a bachelor’s degree in botany and zoology. At university, he was editor of the Journal of Vernacular Studies. Following graduation, he worked for three years at the Tea Research Institute in Kericho, Kenya. At the Institute, his Director told him that a career in entomology was “impossible for an African.” Defying such limited expectations, Odhiambo moved to Uganda to pursue his interest in African insects at the Severe and Kawanda research stations, where he discovered several new genera and species of the Miridae bugs (Hemiptera) in East Africa. He was driven by the conviction that studying insects would be his most significant contribution to the development of Africa, given the vulnerability of agriculture and livestock to insects.
In 1959, Odhiambo matriculated at Queens’ College, the University of Cambridge, where he undertook the Natural Sciences Tripos as the first Kenyan to study at Queens’. He went on to get a master’s degree in natural science and a doctorate in insect physiology, concentrating on the reproductive physiology of the desert locust, a major African pest, which he eventually published as a series of 14 papers. His supervisor, Sir Vincent Wigglesworth, held him in high regard and is claimed to have said that Odhiambo was his best student ever. After completing his degree, Odhiambo returned to Africa with the desire to build scientific capacity and facilitate world-class research among African scientists. He began a career as an academic and joined the University College, Nairobi, in 1969, where he became a Reader in the Department of Zoology. Later, Odhiambo moved to the University of Nairobi soon after it was established and became the first Professor and Head of the new Department of Entomology. He also founded the Department of Agriculture at the University of Nairobi, becoming its first dean in 1970.
Odhiambo was keenly aware that Africa was a site of major intellectual achievements, such as the advent of mathematics in ancient Egypt, the medieval astronomers of Timbuktu, and the architectural achievements at Great Zimbabwe, and he was wary that in more recent times, talented scientists were moving away to countries with higher salaries and better scientific infrastructure. Accordingly, Odhiambo believed that scientific acumen would flourish in postcolonial Africa by establishing well-staffed research centers. He sought to change the status quo and garnered international support for the cause of developing African scientific institutions through a Nature article published in 1967. Soon after, Odhiambo launched — together with Carl Djerassi in the United States — the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Endocrinology (later changed to Ecology), ICIPE, in Nairobi, Kenya. Under 25 years of Odhiambo’s leadership, the ICIPE trained more than 150 African scientists and pioneered research on low-cost biological ways to control insects without using synthetic chemicals, thus improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. Additionally, Odhiambo founded the African Academy of Sciences in 1985, and he created the Academy Science Publishers and ICIPE Science Press, and the two journals Insect Science and its Application and Discovery and Innovation to amplify the voices of African scientists. Odhiambo also recognized the need for encouraging scientific inquiry in children at a young age and founded ChiSci Scientific Publications, through which he published six children’s science books. Together, Odhiambo published more than 110 books and research papers throughout his career, mainly in Comparative Insect Endocrinology. In 1979, he received the Albert Einstein Medal, and in 1987, he was the first recipient of the Africa Prize for Leadership.
On a personal level, Odhiambo was a highly spiritual man and a Christian. During his studies at Cambridge, he undertook two years of study in the philosophy of science alongside his scientific training and also explored the spiritual texts of different religions such as Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism. Shaped by his African worldview, Odhiambo believed that “we are connected to God.”
Odhiambo died of liver cancer in Nairobi, Kenya, on May 26, 2003. Two wives and six children survive him. Odhiambo’s legacy of supporting global collaboration to empower African scientists inspired the Cambridge-Africa Programme, a partnership between Cambridge and several African universities to provide training and resources to strengthen Africa’s research capacity.