Scharff, Robert Francis (1858–1934), naturalist, was born 9 July 1858 in Leeds, son of Edward Scharff of Germany. He studied zoology at University College, London (B.Sc.) and the universities of Edinburgh (MA, 1885) and Heidelberg (Ph.D.), and at the marine biological stations at St Andrews and Naples. In 1887 he was appointed assistant keeper of the natural history collections at the Dublin Museum of Science and Art under A. G. More (qv), whom he succeeded as keeper (1890). He held this position until his retirement (1921) and during the last few years of his tenure was acting director of the museum. On his arrival in Dublin he joined several societies. He became MRIA in 1888 and was for forty years a member of the council, serving as vice-president (1903–6, 1909–12, 1914–16, 1919–21, 1925–7, 1931–4), secretary for foreign correspondence (1899–1902, 1904–6, 1914–16), and chairman of its flora and fauna committee from 1893. He served the Royal Zoological Society of Ireland as honorary secretary (1903–10) and vice-president (1911–34), as well as being a long-standing council member of the RDS. He was a very successful chair of the organising committee for the Clare Island Survey (1911–15), the most comprehensive natural history survey in Ireland up to that time, and contributed a section on amphibians and reptiles. A well-known figure at international zoological meetings, he had a knowledge of European languages that stood him in good stead and allowed him to keep in touch with overseas developments. At the Russian International Zoological Congress (1895) he was awarded the prize of Emperor Nicholas II, and he held the Swiney lectureship in geology in London in 1906 and 1908.
Scharff's broad zoological training allowed him readily to assess material acquired by the museum. An all-rounder, his interests covered fish, molluscs, leeches, and mammals. Through his work with Robert Lloyd Praeger (qv) and Richard John Ussher (qv), his studies on the fossil fauna of Irish caves extended knowledge of the prehistoric fauna of Ireland – woolly mammoth, spotted hyena, bears, and wolves. A passionate and pioneering biogeographer, Scharff maintained a particular interest in the geographical distribution of animals in relation to geological history, and published three major works on the subject: History of the European fauna (1899), European animals (1907), and Distribution and origin of life in America (1911). In defiance of contemporary geological opinion and believing transmarine migration to be impossible, he postulated the existence of ‘land-bridges’ across which animals had migrated, the bridge subsequently sinking beneath the ocean as a result of geological forces. Later he became interested in the question of the origin of Irish races of domestic animals. One of his far-reaching contributions to natural history in Ireland was his suggestion to Praeger that he should apply for a position in the NLI. This allowed Praeger to base himself in Dublin and facilitated his stellar career in Irish natural history.
A conscientious and diligent worker, Scharff was thorough and painstaking in his research, and had little sympathy for rushed or superficial work. After the setting up of the Irish Free State he availed himself of full pension entitlements and retired (1921) to Worthing, Sussex, where he died 13 September 1934. He married first (1889) Alice (d. 15 August 1918 in the influenza epidemic), younger daughter of L. O. Hutton, of Belfast. They had two sons, and lived at Knockranny, Bray, Co. Wicklow. She helped his zoological studies as both collector and writer, and compiled the twenty-five-year author index of the Irish Naturalist (February 1915). He married secondly (1920) Jane Stephens (b. 1879) of Dublin, a year prior to his retirement. They had one daughter and lived at 15 Sandycove Avenue West, Co. Dublin. A graduate of the RUI, Jane Scharff