Of monsters and mysteries; U. of C. professor Roy Mackal chased the unknown
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter December 27, 2013 7:18PM
Dr. Roy P. Mackal
Updated: January 30, 2014 6:40AM
Roy Mackal was part of a unique and sometimes ridiculed fraternity of explorers whose members are never happier than when they are sinking waist-deep into the unguent mud of the jungle or navigating the skirling fog of Loch Ness.
They call themselves cryptozoologists, and they hunt for animals that are undiscovered, uncatalogued — and unproven. Mackal sought the reputed sea beastie of the Scottish loch, and the Mokele-mbembe, a rumored living dinosaur of the Congo.
“Mokele-mbembe, Bigfoot, the Yeti, Loch Ness, mystery cats, skunk apes — that’s in Florida, it’s an apelike creature; a hairy hominid,” said Loren Coleman, ticking off a list of fantastical creatures that intrigue cryptozoologists.
Coleman, founder of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, this month announced the death of Mackal, 88, a retired associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Chicago.
Some cryptozoologists said the slow spread of news of Mackal’s September death is as mysterious as the species he sought. In the 1980s, his profile was high. He was featured in People magazine, The New York Times and the Discovery Channel’s “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World.” Clarke is the author of “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But the cause of death, at a South Side nursing home, was straightforward, said his son, Paul Mackal. “His heart just gave out.”
Even by the standards of the U. of C., where stratospheric achievement and eccentricity may go hand in hand, Mackal was not your everyday academic.
He liked to wear bush jackets, and he traveled in the jungle with “10 Pygmy porters,” as People magazine put it. He was married four times. Some think he may have been one of the inspirations for the “Indiana Jones” films, Coleman said. From 1965 into the 1970s, he was a director of Scotland’s Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, which used sonar tracking to try to find Nessie. He believed he once spotted the loch lurker, as well as the splashings and thrashings of Africa’s Mokele-mbembe.
He savored each supposed encounter with his quarry. The one in Scotland occurred as he scanned the 23-mile-long, 750-foot-deep lake. “It was 6 p.m., and the loch was flat and calm,” he said in a 1985 Sun-Times interview. “Suddenly, the water near my boat started to boil and churn, and the back of an animal surfaced, rising 8 feet out of the water. The skin was slick and black and very smooth. I saw something like a flipper protruding from the skin. Then, with a huge splash, it was gone.”
“To this day, when someone asks me, ‘Do you believe there is a monster in Loch Ness?’ my stomach does a somersault,” he told People magazine in 1981. “I know what I saw.”
The thrill of the hunt recurred in the African jungle as he sought a fearsome creature rumored for hundreds of years, the Mokele-mbembe. Its name translates into “one who stops the flow of rivers.” Based on descriptions from indigeneous people of a long-necked, long-tailed creature, Mackal believed “we are dealing with a small sauropod dinosaur.”
As he and his band rounded a riverbend in their dugout canoes, “The huge form of an animal dived from a rock shelf into the water,” he said in the Sun-Times interview. “The splash produced a foot-high wave that rocked the boats, and the natives were screaming, ‘Mokele-mbembe’ over and over again. We had to coax the Pygmies for 15 minutes and offer a vast raise in their pay before we could get them to move forward.”
“This region of the Congo hasn’t changed for 60 million years,” he said. “No glaciers, no earthquakes, no continental drift. . . . What you’re looking for is a myth, a tradition, a tale whispered . . . in the dead of night. But why, why must it be a myth? If there were any dinosaurs left on Earth, this is where they’d be.”
But after two voyages to seek the Congolese relic, “all we got were footprints,” he told The Scientist Magazine in 1993.
He wrote the books “A Living Dinosaur? In Search of Mokele-Mbembe,” “The Monsters of Loch Ness” and “Searching for Hidden Animals.”
“Instead of plowing his book royalties into pool payments, however, Mackal used them to seed expeditions, such as his 1988 trek to Namibia in search of ‘flying snakes,’ or pterasaurs,” said The Scientist.
“It was nothing but anecdotes,” Mackal told the magazine. “Still, there’s an excitement to cryptozoology if you love animals, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
Growing up, the Milwaukee native was bewitched by romantic books about adventure and lost worlds, including Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” His son said he read and re-read “She” by “King Solomon’s Mines” author H. Rider Haggard, about Ayesha, the 2,000-year-old queen of the hidden African city of Kor. “She” is the source for the now commonly used phrase “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.”
Mackal served in the U.S. Navy and the Marines during World War II. After enrolling at the University of Chicago, he received a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1953. Mackal performed research on viruses, and he filed patents involving biochemical and viral pathogens, and on a breakthrough to help recover weather balloons, Coleman said.
It was 1965 when he was first beguiled by Loch Ness. After a trip to the Scottish Highlands’ inland sea, he began moving away from the workaday world of the university’s biochemistry and biology departments.
“It was a big shock to everybody,” his son said, “because he was rather conservative, and he went to Loch Ness and to Africa to look for a monster.”
Other monster-hunters welcomed Mackal, for he carried the patina of the University of Chicago. They point out their odysseys are not as far-fetched as some believe, because many heretofore unknown animals were only documented in the 20th century — the Komodo dragon, the mountain gorilla and the coelacanth, a “living fossil” fish. But his adventures were not without professional cost.
“Mackal has been laughed at by colleagues, has received antagonistic mail, and has been scorned in newspapers,” according to The Scientist Magazine.
“There were some administrators in the university who were embarrassed at his Loch Ness interest or his search for Mokele-mbembe,” Coleman said. “He would talk to me about how they gave him a lateral promotion.”
In the 1970s, the university named him its energy and safety coordinator.
A former colleague recalled Mackal’s quests. “I watched with amusement as Roy went about his search for the Loch Ness monster. He was serious about the whole thing, spent a lot of time and money hanging around Loch Ness with cameras,” Robert Haselkorn, the F.L. Pritzker Professor Emeritus of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, said in an email. “Again he was ahead of his time, might have done better with equipment from the Woods Hole Oceanographic people that could dive and had good lights. I always enjoyed talking with Roy because he took himself so seriously, was patient with all the people who scoffed at his efforts. But in no way was he a model for Indiana Jones. North Dakota Jones, maybe.”
Even as he raised eyebrows, colleagues found Mackal charming and pleasant.
“He never used an elevator when I was with him, a fitness effort,” said Herbert Friedmann, an associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Chicago. “In 1987 he was already talking about free radicals, longevity and antioxidants. Always at the forefront of new ideas.”
The 1985 Sean Young-Patrick McGoohan film “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend,” about the discovery of a brontosaurus family in Africa, was thought to be inspired by some of his work, according to Friedmann and Coleman.
Mackal never stopped believing. Just two years ago he told the BBC that not only was he convinced of the existence of Mokele-mbembe — he thought there were multiples. “But I think that Mokele-mbembe still exist, and there isn’t just one; they are reproducing,” he said. “At 86 years old, I would dearly love to be alive if and when the animals are discovered.”
Believers in lost worlds are missing him. As one writer put it on the “lochnessmystery” blog, “I live in a world with no Lou Reed, no Ray Harryhausen, no Peter O’Toole, and now no Roy Mackal; my mind reels.”