4 min.

Dave Elsworth

ILRI News

Dave Elsworth, aged 72, died last week, in Nairobi, Kenya, following a short illness.

He was a good and loyal friend, a fierce protector as well as documenter of good laboratory science, a devoted father. He adored his two daughters, Netty and Becky, and when they were children, he took every chance he could get to take them with him on international trips—to see ancient Egypt and other wonders of the world.

He loved good films (admiring, I remember, the eccentricities, technical mastery and [the very] British sense of humour in the stop-motion ‘Wallace and Gromit’ animations.) He loved Bob Dylan and good dill pickles. He loved Africa—its people and landscapes and wildlife—and made it his home.

Dave worked with me at the International Laboratory for Research on Animal Diseases (ILRAD), and the institute it later became, the International Livestock Research Institute {ILRI), from 1984 to 2001. Although he left ILRI two decades ago, his presence there has never waned—his fine photographs are used by ILRI staff to this day. Because few have done that better than him. (See the slideshow below for samples of his photographic art.)

Dave was a technical master of his profession, which was scientific photography. This is back in the day when research institutions like ILRAD and ILRI had actual graphics units and staff, which Dave headed for 17 years. Virtually every staff member would regularly visit Dave in his large basement workspace on one errand or another—to pick up photos or to get help in putting together a scientific poster, or to search the many filing cabinets overflowing with strips of negatives and slides filed in plastic sleeves.

Staff would usually find Dave standing at his light table, peering through a small magnifying loupe at a transparency or negative. Or he’d be sitting at his computer, surrounded by various camera equipment, slide viewers and scanners. A decade’s worth of rolls of scientific posters stood upright in big cardboard boxes. Drawing file cabinets overflowed with maps, sketches and posters (with, I remember, seemingly endless permutations of ‘The Life Cycle of the Brown Ear Tick’). Dave’s pictures of experimental lab results, particularly of DNA and other molecules sorted by size in the labs using a process known as ‘gel electrophoresis’, were scattered everywhere. A wide-format plotter printer took up one whole wall, with heavy rolls of paper stored at its feet. 

Piled high on an odd assembly of high stools and long layout tables was the loose detritus of Dave’s analogue trade—scraps of paper, old envelopes, spent X-ACTO blades and glue sticks; announcement fliers and bits of artworks. The tables were laden with guillotines of various sizes; with red tins of (toxic-smelling) cow gum and old balls of Cow Gum rubber; with Rotring pens and mechanical pencils, scissors and rulers, highlighters and rubbers, rolls of Sellotape and masking tape. Even a few old bottles of ink could still be found at the back of his cabinets.

In these always disordered surroundings, Dave would do his magic. How many times did Dave and his graphics sidekick, Francis Shikubari, save the day for a scientist or student or director (or me!) by staying late to get a poster printed and stuffed into a cardboard tube for travel to a conference? Or by scrambling to assemble a carousel of slides for a director’s presentation with a slide projector? For several years Dave and his friend Keith Sones sat in this studio every Friday evening to assemble weekly printed issues of the first newsletter of Friends of Nairobi National Park.

Let me close by quoting another of Dave’s former colleagues, veterinarian/epidemiologist Brian Perry, who was a director of ILRAD/ILRI from 1987–2007:

‘I was deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Dave Elsworth, a former ILRI photographer and graphic design artist. Dave was a highly creative and productive photographer, and the images he created still illustrate ILRI to the world. He was very keen for his images to reflect his personal first-hand experience of the different aspects of ILRAD and ILRI’s research, whether in the laboratories, in the field, or in offices, where he strove to understand the advanced science he was photographing. Dave left ILRI in 2001 and moved to the Nairobi suburb of Karen, where he continued to be creative with consultancy work. Although beset by health problems in his later years, I never found Dave other than cheerful and positive.’

Brian and I offer our condolences to his family, to his friends and to the many former colleagues he served so well. We will miss him, and his ready smile and big laugh, badly.

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