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Peter Saki Bassett Digby

Peter Saki Bassett Digby: Husband. Father. Scientist. Naturalist. Born Jan. 15, 1921, in London; died Dec. 24, 2017, in Pointe Claire, Que., of complications from heart failure; aged 96.

Peter S. B. Digby, as he always signed his name, was a scientist through and through. He loved his wife and family, but he also loved the sea and the small organisms in it, which he collected, examined, measured, counted, drew, photographed and recorded in great detail. His many notebooks were filled with seemingly indecipherable notes in tiny slanted handwriting and burst with columns of figures, ideas and sketches.

In 1950-51, Peter and his wife, Vi, whom he married in 1945, made pioneering measurements of plankton in Greenland. In summer, they worked from a small boat but in winter the couple mastered dog sledding and blasting holes in the sea-ice. In later years, his work on calcification of crabs and bone would continue post-retirement in his basement laboratory.

Peter and Vi were great travellers; in the 1950s, they explored war-scarred Europe with motorbike and sidecar, sleeping in a small army surplus tent. In the 1960s, they camped with their four children in Scandinavia, snug in canvas tents with hand-sewn screens of mosquito netting and waterproofed with melted candle wax.

The family immigrated to Canada in 1967 when Peter accepted a position as professor of zoology at McGill University in Montreal. Canada was a land of space and opportunity and Peter and Vi embraced the winter: they unpacked their own war-surplus skis bought for Greenland and bought secondhand skis and ice skates for the kids. Every summer, the family camped its way across the country to the West Coast. Well into their 90s Peter and Vi would continue the tradition, sleeping in a converted van and visiting their children’s families on the way.

Although an introvert, Peter was a great educator. Students at McGill remember him as kind and encouraging, an excellent professor who stimulated thinking and curiosity. Field ecology for his children often involved dissections of still-moist cow pies revealing varied beetles. It was supremely fascinating but as kids we were always wary that his dissection penknife was the very one used on picnics.

Peter was a great picnicker and on family walks he was never without his bulging and battered tan canvas haversack: within were Ritz biscuits, apples, sweeties, a magnifying glass, an aged camera and plastic bags in hopes of finding mushrooms or berries. Back at the van there were thermoses of tea drunk out of tannin-stained mugs and lunch. In fine weather we sat on grass, in the wet we huddled under umbrellas, and in winter we jogged from one foot to another warding off frostbite.

An avid photographer, Peter developed his own film and prints and never transitioned to digital cameras or, for that matter, used an ATM or a computer. And he was always reluctant to trade his much-darned, green, hand-knit sweaters for the identical new ones Vi knitted.

Peter and Vi celebrated 72 years of marriage in August, 2017; she was truly the love of his life. Peter’s wit, wisdom and cups of tea are missed by his four children and six grandchildren.

Susan Digby is Peter’s daughter.

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