Lee, Robert Pearson (1921–2012), veterinary scientist, was born at home at 41 Marguerite Road, Drumcondra, Dublin, on 8 May 1921, the youngest of four children (two sons and two daughters) of George Angus McLean Lee, a pharmaceutical chemist of Aberdeenshire farming stock, and Roberta Lee (née Pearson) originally from St Andrew's, Scotland. An early love of animals was inspired by family outings exploring the flora and fauna of north Co. Dublin and Co. Meath, and exciting private visits to Dublin Zoo organised by his maternal uncle, Andrew Pearson, a senior Board of Works official living in the Phoenix Park with a key to the zoo.
After attending national school in Glasnevin, and St Andrew's College, St Stephen's Green as a day pupil (1933–8), where he boxed and played rugby, Lee studied at the Veterinary College of Ireland, Ballsbridge (1938–43). Winning the Freeman gold medal for pathology, and numerous other student prizes, he graduated as a member of the RCVS. Having been enthralled by William Kearney, a professor of pathology who had worked in Africa on rinderpest ('cattle plague'), Lee joined the British Colonial Office's veterinary service. In 1943 he was sent to undertake the colonial veterinary studentship – a postgraduate course of study – at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University (which awarded him MA status upon his arrival). Finding his courses largely uninspiring, Lee took additional university courses in anthropology, psychology, sociology and economics. After working briefly as a locum around England, he was posted to Tanganyika (Tanzania from 1964) as a veterinary officer (1944–7).
Heading the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Mpwapwa (1944–5), he supervised the large-scale rinderpest vaccine production programme, serving six million cattle and five million sheep across the region. Rinderpest was a significant threat to Tanganyika's cattle herd, which was seen as a cordon sanitaire protecting the strategically important South African beef industry, the key food source for Allied military campaigns in North Africa and the Far East. Lee also managed programmes to control trypanosomiasis (animal 'sleeping sickness', transmitted by insects, requiring ongoing scrub clearance) and linked efforts for soil and water conservation to support large-scale subsistence agriculture. In addition Lee managed animal husbandry and veterinary services, combatted anthrax outbreaks, and oversaw a veterinary zoo 'with high walls to keep lions and leopards out' (Lee, Destination 5, 63). As provincial veterinary officer for the Western Province (1946–7), three times the size of Ireland, he travelled extensively across the protectorate investigating outbreaks of disease in cattle and wild game animals. He saw first-hand the mass failure of the large-scale groundnut scheme, whereby the British colonial administration sought to turn swathes of Tanganyika over to peanut cultivation, ravaging vast landscapes and denuding the ecosystem. He later composed an engaging memoir of this time, Destination 5 (2003).
Drawn by the opportunity to work with R. M. Gordon, professor of tropical diseases of Africa at the University of Liverpool, Lee became a lecturer in veterinary parasitology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (1947–8). He voluntarily relinquished his post after taking extended sick leave midway through the academic year and returned to Ireland, where he was recruited by the Department of Agriculture, with funding from the US Marshall plan, to develop programmes to combat parasitic disease in farm animals (1949–52). He spent a fruitful six months visiting American universities and various laboratories of the federal Department of Agriculture and studying scientific and bureaucratic approaches to veterinary parasitology, but was frustrated awaiting the delayed construction of laboratory facilities in Ireland and resigned. Rejoining the British colonial veterinary service, he was sent in 1952 as a veterinary parasitologist to the Nigerian federal Department of Veterinary Research at Vom (on Bauchi plateau, 500 miles north of Lagos), which also housed the West African Institute for Trypanosomiasis ('sleeping sickness').
During an extensive eithteen-month tour of the country, Lee organised surveys assessing the prevalence and form of parasitic diseases affecting cattle, sheep and goats. These informed the establishment of a major research programme encompassing laboratory studies on the epidemiology, immunology, chemotherapy and prophylaxis of helminth disease – parasitic worms such as fluke and tapeworm which attack the intestines of animals. Tailored to local ecology and agricultural practices, they assessed how helminth disease impaired agricultural productivity, and assisted animal husbandry and breeding schemes. In 1956 Lee was appointed principal veterinary research officer, charged with developing a new division of animal production. He managed scientific and technical teams undertaking multidisciplinary research, establishing a significant reputation for scientific acumen and bureaucratic effectiveness. Having met Joyce Wright at the RDS spring show in 1952, they married when Lee was on home leave, on 10 May 1954 at Clontarf Presbyterian church, Dublin.
Returning to Ireland, Lee became statutory lecturer in veterinary parasitology at UCD (1961–66). He was appointed to the chair of clinical veterinary sciences at TCD (1966), awarded an MA (1967) by the college (having no formal undergraduate or post-graduate degree at that point), and made a fellow of the college (1969). In 1969 UCD awarded him a Ph.D. for his thesis An approach to the evaluation of anathelmintics for the treatment of acute ovine fascioliasis – concerning liver fluke in sheep. He was a member of the Department of Agriculture's advisory group on fascioliasis, and his wider research through the decade addressed the development of treatments to destroy parasitic worms in nematodes and arthropods.
Appointed dean and director of the TCD veterinary school in 1970, Lee was a leading, if reluctant, figure in the protracted and contentious eventual integration of TCD's veterinary faculty into UCD in 1977. Attempting to reconcile the needs of the agricultural and veterinary communities, the government, and the two universities (whose broader unification had been mooted in the late 1960s by the government), the lengthy negotiations benefited considerably from Lee's diplomatic acumen and bureaucratic endeavour. Upon the establishment of the UCD faculty of veterinary medicine, he became professor of veterinary parasitology. Freed from onerous bureaucratic and academic demands from the late 1970s, he made frequent research visits to Africa, principally Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.
When in 1983 the University of Zambia requested assistance from the Irish authorities, Lee was appointed inaugural dean of veterinary science at the university. From October 1984 he began recruitment of an international academic and technical staff, as well as organising the training of Zambian technicians in Ireland. He diplomatically managed relations between the university and various funders, and played crucial organising and coordinating roles until the faculty opened in 1986, establishing veterinary education in Zambia.
In January 1986 he retired from UCD, but continued to work as a technical consultant to the development coordination division of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He was central to the establishment of a bilateral aid programme on the island of Pemba, Tanzania, to support smallholder livestock development and ancillary agricultural instruction and veterinary services. He also directed a cattle breeding programme, crossing Jersey cows with local dwarf Zebu, combined with an immunisation programme to combat east coast fever. This increased the milk yield of the resulting cattle by 500 per cent, providing valuable animal protein to the expanding local populace (at risk of starvation), as well as economic opportunities. He visited Pemba regularly to support the project (1982–94), which addressed poverty in its social and agricultural context and sought to improve traditional farming practices, rather than impose large-scale westernised approaches. The Zebu-Jersey cows required improved nutrition to achieve their full milking potential, for which kitchen waste and the leaves of indigenous nitrogen-rich leguminous shrubs were used. Crucial to the scheme's success were efforts to instruct smallholders in improved husbandry techniques. Lee was proud of his role in this project, as it recognised the autonomy and immediate needs of indigenous communities, as well as being sympathetic to the local ecosystem. Strongly interested in development across the continent of Africa, Lee was a founder member of the Nigerian Veterinary Council, a president of the Nigerian Veterinary Association, and the founding chairman of the Ireland–Tanzania Friendship Society.
A long-time member of the UCD academic council, the Zoological Society of Ireland, and a member of the RCVS council (1987–95), he chaired the latter's examination committee, was a member of its education committee and a highly sought after university examiner. He published many research articles and contributed significantly to the international reputation of Irish practical, educational and scientific veterinary practice. His more notable publications included two chapters contributed to A veterinary school to flourish: the Veterinary College of Ireland 1900–2000 (2001) which outlined the tortuous and institutionally complex development of post-war veterinary education in Ireland leading up to the establishment of the faculty of veterinary medicine in UCD (1977).
During retirement he enjoyed fishing and kept a small pedigree sheep flock and stable of ponies at his home in Ashfield, Killincarrig, Delgany, Co. Wicklow, He died on 21 May 2012 at the Beacon Hospital, Dublin. After his funeral at Greystones Presbyterian church, he was buried in Redford cemetery, Greystones.