Dr Lim Boo Liat was born on August 21, 1926. He was only 16 when World War II came to Malaya. The war disrupted his studies and he had to work to help support his family. Matters took a turn for the worse when his father passed away during the War. “I did all kinds of things (odd jobs),” he says. “I did whatever came my way, like selling vegetables.
However, Dr Lim’s destiny changed when he applied and was accepted for a temporary post as a Lab Assistant at the Institute for Medical Research (IMR), Kuala Lumpur in 1947. His temporary stint turned into a permanent job when he was promoted in 1952 to the position of permanent Lab Assistant. As a permanent staff of the IMR, Dr Lim was involved in scientific expeditions and projects in Borneo, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand under the auspices of the Bishop Museum, University of Hawaii that focused on the study of parasites and small mammals. He also had the opportunity, during this time, to help start the National Zoo, working together with such notable people as the late Tan Sri V M Hutson and the late Datuk Kington Loo as well as officers from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Malaysia (DWNP). He was also instrumental in the revival of the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) – recipient of the Merdeka Award in 2008 - in 1948 after its long hiatus during the Second World War.
Dr Lim’s interest and dedication to his job soon won him recognition. In 1959, he was offered a Sino-British Fellowship Trust Award under the British Council. He spent the next one and a half years studying animal ecology at Oxford under the tutorship of Prof. Charles S. Elton, and Prof. George Dunnet at Aberdeen University, and the taxonomy of mammals at the British Natural History Museum under John Edward Hill in Britain. He returned to Kuala Lumpur in 1961 and headed the Medical Ecology division of the IMR and, by 1969, he had successfully published 80 scientific papers in various journals. This was a particularly important achievement as he was later offered a Medical Research Council Fellowship (London) and the opportunity to pursue a Master’s Degree in Science at the University of Aberdeen. He says: “They accepted me because of my publications and I was later nominated to be a member of the Biological Society in London.”
Armed with a Masters in Science, Dr Lim returned once again to the IMR in 1972 to continue his work. He was subsequently promoted to the position of Zoologist and began running the Medical Ecology division there. In 1977 he completed his PhD in Zoology at Universiti Sains Malaysia and was seconded to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in Indonesia where he headed the Vector Biology Control Research Unit in charge of conducting research on such subjects as plague, malaria control and, also, rodent control. Dr Lim retired from WHO in 1987. Then he was honorary advisor to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, Kuala Lumpur (DWNP) in establishing a research laboratory for small animals (mammals, reptiles and amphibians) ecology. Meanwhile he continued to work as a consultant on small mammal research with the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM). At the same time he was also a consultant to DANCED-Management of Krau Wildlife Reserve, Pahang. He was appointed as a Visiting Scientific Fellow at the Institute for Environment and Development, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He also served as an adviser to the Malayan Nature Society (MNS) where he is an Honorary Member.
Dr Lim, in 1995 was selected for the Science and Technology Award by Malaysia Toray Science Foundation (MTSF) in recognition of his outstanding achievements in vertebrate ecology and zoonotic diseases in the environment. Later, in 2007, he was elected as a fellow (FASc) by Akedemi Sains Malaysia in recognition of his scientific research work in the country.
Dr Lim is regarded as a pioneer in the field of zoology in Malaysia. He has dedicated his professional life to working in bio-medical research on small animals in relation to zoonotic diseases. In his studies he found that parasites and food habits of small mammals were good indicators of their behaviourial habits in their natural environment. He, thus developed the concept of “ecological labeling” by parasite pattern. This concept of “ecological labeling” by parasite pattern has since been accepted by animal behaviorists and mammalogists around the world. The findings of this study were published in the Journal of Zoology, London in 1967.
In recognition of his distinguished service to the science of mammalogy, Dr Lim was awarded an Honorary Membership to The American Society of Mammalogists (ASM) in 2003. This makes him the first South-East Asian, to become an Honorary Member of the ASM, an award that dates back to 1919.
Dr Lim has made significant contribution to the publication of the Red List of Mammals of Peninsular Malaysia. It took 50 years of field research on the mammals of Malaysia to acquire a thorough knowledge of the ecology of each of the small mammal’s species diversity in its natural environment. The publication of the Red List is considered to be the first national Red List and was published by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks in 2010.
Dr Lim and his colleague, Dr Heyneman D. in their studies of the rat-lungworm (Metastrongylus cantonensis) that causes human eosinophilic meningitis discovered a “new mode of transmission” to humans through eating raw lettuce contaminated by the infective larvae. Science, 158. USA. 1967.
Dr Lim with his colleague Dr Illar Muul, constructed the first Aerial Walkway in 1968 at Bukit Lanjan Forest Reserve, Sungei Buloh, Selangor to study the canopy of the rainforest and its canopy inhabitants (vertebrate and invertebrate, plants) and vectors of diseases. This concept has now been developed in national and private parks around the country for both commercial (tourism) as well as for research purposes and internationally as well. Science, 169.USA. 1970.
Studies on ectoparasites, particularly, the vector mites of scrub typhus found in foci areas in primary forests was due to immigration of field rat species (normal hosts of vector mites) due to environmental change through deforestation. Trans. Roy. Soc. Trop. Med. Hyg. 1977, London. This was further reinforced in his studies on the fauna of Peninsular Malaysia where he found that environmental change through deforestation has impacted species diversity. This study alerted government agencies to the realisation that critical lowland/hill habitats should not be further damaged. It also highlighted health agencies to the need to monitor the health status of the populace settling in the fringe forest areas. The study was published in the Journal of Science and Technology in the Tropics in 2008.
Dr Lim has authored several books such as Poisonous Snakes of Peninsular Malaysia, Orang Asli Animal Tales, Turtles of Borneo and Peninsular Malaysia and Bats of Krau Wildlife Reserve, Malaysia. He has published 300 scientific papers on small mammals, reptiles and amphibian ecology, rodent control and bio-medical studies (zoonotic diseases) associated with terrestrial vertebrates and helminthic parasitology in various national and international journals.
Today, Dr Lim retains his position as Honorary Advisor on Zoology for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) where his vast experience and expertise continues to play an important role. He also continues to mentor both local and foreign young scientists from various local and foreign universities and research organisations.
Early days in the laboratory at the IMR, 1948
Dr Lim is regarded as a pioneer in the field of zoology in Malaysia as well as a leading authority in the conservation of Malaysia’s biological diversity. He is the recipient of several awards including the Sandosham Gold Medal by the Malaysian Society of Parasitology and Tropical Medicine in 1978 for his parasitological research in Malaysia. Dr Lim has the honour of being the first South East Asian recipient of the Spallanzani Award by the North American Society for bat research (NASBR) in 2007. He also has a number of parasites and animals named after him: a chigger (larvae of a scrub typhus mite), flea, helminth (parasitic worm), protozoa, snake, lizard and frog. Always modest, about the praise and accolades he has received, Dr Lim credits his mentors and students for his success, “Everything is a learning process and I have learned a lot from those I have taught.”
Now a sprightly 87 year old, Dr Lim continues to mentor both local and foreign young scientists in research. He says: “The satisfaction to me now is that I am able to impart my knowledge to the younger generation.” He is also actively involved in developing integrated management plans for the Pahang state government, training wildlife officers and assisting postgraduate students. His immense expertise and knowledge has ensured that he continues to be sought after for his advice and guidance from wildlife scientists around the world.
Dr Lim’s six decades of scientific research and advocacy in protecting the nation’s rich biodiversity has contributed immensely to the nation. He is an outstanding zoologist and has made significant contribution to the conservation of Malaysia’s bio-diversity and the protection of our natural heritage. His wide-ranging work has had significant impact on Malaysia and Malaysians and it truly embodies the Spirit of Merdeka.