Roy P. Mackal (1925 – 2013)

Biochemist-turned-cryptozoologist hunted 
Loch Ness monster and other mysterious beasts

Roy P. Mackal

Roy P. Mackal / Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, [apf1-04046],
Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Roy P. Mackal, a retired associate professor at the University of Chicago who began his career studying the biochemistry of bacteriophage infection but who ended up dedicating most of his life to the search for creatures that may or may not exist, died Sept. 13, 2013. He was 88.

Mackal had been a public face in the 1980s for the often-ridiculed but undeniably fascinating field of cryptozoology – that is, the study of hidden animals. From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, he served as scientific director for an institute formed to research the Loch Ness monster (or monsters) in the Scotland highlands, and he later spent time in the swamps of Congo, following up on alleged sightings of the elusive Mokele-mbembe, which is believed by some to be a living dinosaur.

Mackal was born in 1925 in Milwaukee. His son, Paul Mackal, told the Chicago Sun-Times in December that his father enjoyed reading books as a child about adventure and lost worlds, including Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” A colleague who worked with him in Chicago described him as “a romantic.”

After serving in the military during World War II, Mackal enrolled at the University of Chicago, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1953 under the direction of Lloyd Kozloff, whose lab focused on virus replication. “The fate of bacteriophage T7,” Mackal’s first paper, appeared in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 1954. Mackal ended up joining the lab of Kozloff’s collaborator, Earl Evans. His next four papers, with Evans, appeared in the JBC between 1958 and 1964.

As former colleague Ed Brody recalls, by the summer of 1960, Mackal was practically running the Evans lab. “Roy was intelligent, knew a lot of biochemistry and biophysics, and was a wonderful, patient teacher of laboratory techniques,” says Brody, now chief medical officer emeritus at SomaLogic Inc. “I never saw him or heard him get angry, which would have scared a lot of people. He was an ex-Marine and physically imposing.”

Brody remembers Mackal as a “master craftsman” who made instruments for various labs. “If he was not in his office, he usually could be found in the machine shop,” Brody says.

He recalls working with bacteriophage lambda: “The standard method to get lysogenic E.coli to produce phage was to UV irradiate Petri plates growing the bacteria, scrape the plate and isolate the induced phage. Roy invented and then built a machine to increase the amount of phage by 100 fold. He grew the lysogenic bacteria in 10-liter flasks, pumped them through quartz tubing surrounded by UV lamps and then incubated the irradiated bacteria until lysis occurred.”

Bob Haselkorn, another former colleague at Chicago, also remembers Mackal as an “imaginative” young scientist. In one project, Haselkorn says, Mackal and his group took phage extracts from cells and observed what was at the time thought to be replication. Many years later, a different group armed with new technologies and knowledge used “well-defined mutants blocked at various steps in the assembly of heads, tails and tail fibers” and worked out the assembly pathways.

Mackal “could have scooped the assembly story by decades if he had understood the use of mutants and invested the years it took to isolate and characterize them,” Haselkorn says. He quips that Mackal “was always an adventurer, pretty weak on controls.”

Mackal discovered his true calling in 1965 while vacationing in Scotland. There he came upon members of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau conducting observations. He was hooked. He returned to Chicago and continued to contribute to the endeavors there, publishing another half a dozen or so virology papers through 1971. But at the same time, he was becoming more involved and more prominent in the field of cryptozoology.

Brody recalls: “Cryptozoology – the term didn’t yet exist – was already strong, and he used to explain to us paleozoology and the probability of finding coelacanth-like, supposed-extinct species. His reading was deep, and he knew this was not a field that was going to please his peers.” But “Roy’s approach to cryptozoology was scientific,” Brody said. “He studied the subject assiduously and knew that finding positive results would be difficult, even unlikely, but he thought the risk was worth taking, because he was passionate about the subject.”

While still employed by the university, Mackal took the post of scientific director of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau, which he held until 1975. The bureau employed sonar and a biopsy harpoon that Mackal himself had fashioned on the hope of one day getting close enough to Nessie to obtain a tissue sample.

Mackal described in a 1981 People magazine interview the moment when he saw Nessie himself. It was 1970, and the creature was just 30 yards away, he told the magazine. He saw “the back of the animal, rising eight feet out of the water, rolling, twisting. If that’s a fish, I thought, it’s a mighty fish indeed! To this day, when someone asks me, ‘Do you believe there is a monster in Loch Ness?’ my stomach does a somersault. I know what I saw.”

In 1976, Mackal published the first of three books about hidden animals, “The Monsters of Loch Ness.” According to a tribute by Loren Coleman, founder of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, Mackal “theorized that a population of large invertebrate living fossils were living in the loch” but “later changed his mind and proposed that the creatures were zeuglodons, ancient serpentine whales.”

In the 1980s, Mackal went twice to Africa in search of the Mokele-mbembe, thought to be something like a living dinosaur of the smallish sauropod variety. He and his team talked to pygmy locals who reported sightings of the long-necked and -tailed creature in Congo’s Likouala swamps.

Around that time, Mackal and others founded the International Society for Cryptozoology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. He served as its vice-president until the society was dissolved in 1998.

“Over the years, I saw Roy from time to time. He stayed calm and philosophical about his choices, and I never heard him complain one time” about how his work was viewed by some of his peers and administrators, Brody said. “He was one of the most interesting people I’ve ever known.”

Angela HoppAngela Hopp (ahopp@asbmb.org) is editor of ASBMB Today.