Midgley, Des

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Born: 1914 Died: 13 April 1997


Professor Desmond C. Midgley is considered South Africa's foremost hydrologist and the its "father of hydrological modelling". Midgley was born in Durban, South Africa and educated at Hilton College. He graduated BSc Civil (Engineering) at the University of Natal in 1934. The Depression was in full swing at that time and, after a long search for work Midgley was finally offered a post as field assistant in the Irrigation Department’s surveying section. The prospect of an outdoor life appealed to him and he accepted. One of his first tasks was participating in surveys for the first national water planning maps of the country, drawn up under director of Irrigation Director, Dr AD Lewis. Midgley was put in charge of the magnetic survey (isogonic) mapping of South Africa, and in this capacity travelled widely throughout the country.

During the Second World War he joined the Works Battalion of the SA Engineering Corps and spent two years in Kenya, advancing with the troops to Addis Ababa. In 1942, he was drafted back to South Africa and assigned to the Directorate of Fortifications and Coastal Works where he took charge of coastal works from Port Elizabeth to Walvis Bay, particularly water supply and harbour works for Saldanha Bay.

In 1945, new Irrigation Director LA Mackenzie recalled Midgley from the army to participate in the Conroy Expedition to the Kalahari to investigate the controversial Schwarz scheme. (Schwarz, a German-born geologist at Rhodes University, had the idea that South Africa’s climate for rain could be improved by diverting the Zambezi and Kunene rivers into vast evaporation lakes in the Kalahari) “I had to drive the food truck and had a wonderful time,” Midgley later said of the experience. The Schwarz scheme might have come to nought but it did peak Midgley’s interest in engineering hydrology and, as he had been placed in the research division of the department, he was able to exercise his initiative in the study of what appeared to him to be the most important matter of all – the water resources of the country. Working on his own he collected all the available data and built up consolidated national and regional files which, until then, had been scattered among various authorities in the country.

ln 1956 Midgley completed the first comprehensive survey of the surface water resources of South Africa. The effort earned him his PhD and established him as the leader in water resource hydrology in the country. That year, he was appointed to the chair of hydraulic engineering in the University of Witwatersrand. Following disastrous floods in KwaZulu-Natal in 1959, he set up a research team which later became the Hydrological Research Unit (HRU). Under his direction the HRU published design manuals on flood hydrology in the 1970s and on water resources assessment in 1969 and updated in 1981. Mathematical models in wide variety were developed in the Unit for simulating the behaviour of river catchments, lakes, swamps, estuaries and flood plains, as weil as salinity fluctuations in various hydrological systems. Pertinent among these is the well-known Pitman Catchment Model. The publications of the HRU have been well received in many parts of the world and are widely referred to in South Africa.

Midgley served for several years on the Prime Minister's Advisory Council and on the Water Research Commission. He was President of the South African Institution of Civil Engineers in 1968 and of the Associated Scientific and Technical Societies in 1974. He received the Gold Medal Award of both bodies and was made an Honorary Fellow of the Civil Engineering Institution. For many years, he consulted in hydraulic engineering and hydrology for the mining houses, Eskom and Government departments and many consulting engineering firms.

Midgley retired from the Chair of Hydraulic Engineering in 1977 but continued as full-time Director of the HRU until 1981 when he retired from the University and the Unit was disbanded. In 1982 he joined the consulting engineering firm, Watermeyer Legge Piesold & Uhlmann, as consultant until his death in 1997.

The long years of South Africa's international isolation deprived Midgley of many opportunities to develop an international profile. Nevertheless, he maintained international cross-pollination in the fields of hydrology and water resources engineering, by arranging and receiving visits from internationally renowned researchers, academics and practitioners in these fields and by serving as editorial panellist for a number of international journals. In 1994 the Water Engineering Division of the SA Institution of Civil Engineers organised an international Symposium as a tribute to Professor Midgley, entitled "Fifty years of Water Engineering in South Africa" and in 1996, he was awarded the International Hydrology Prize Third UNESCO/IAHS George Kovács Colloquium.

Des Midgley was an exemplary exponent of applying basic hydrological principles to address real-world issues in a water-scarce environment such as that of southern Africa. He had a gift for reconciling the requirements of a site-specific hydrological study with regional hydrological patterns and trends. His vision that the immense spatial variability of rainfall-runoff conditions in the catchments of the southern African subcontinent can and must be overcome, inspired many post-graduate students, researchers and young water engineers who benefitted from his mentorship.

Hydrological Achievements[edit]

Published the first comprehensive survey of the surface water resources of South Africa in 1956 (his PhD)

Established the HydrologicalResearch Unit at the University of Witwatersrand in 1959

Initiated and published the South African Unit design flood report in 1969, updated in 1972 and again in 1979

Published the Surface Water Resources of South Africa in 1981

Awarded an Honorary DSc (Eng) by the University of the Witwatersrand in 1986

In 1993 then State President FW de Klerk bestowed on him the Order of Meritorious Service (Gold)

1996 International Hydrology Prize


Reference Material[edit]

Material in the biography above was drawn from the citation for the 1996 International Hydrology Prize written by Eberhard Braune on behalf of SANCIAHS and the article in Chapter 9 "SA’s ‘father of hydrological modelling" in the book "In the Footsteps of Giants – Exploring the history of South Africa’s large dams by Lani van Vuuren (ISBN 978-1-4312-0212-6)

Major Publications[edit]