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Born in Pretoria, South Africa on the 16th of May 1931, to a family long established in South Africa, John Charles Poynton matriculated at Michaelhouse School, Natal, 1948, and commenced university studies in 1949 at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg. Majoring in botany and zoology, including undergraduate philosophy, he gained a B.Sc. degree in 1951, and B.Sc. (Hons) in zoology in 1952. After a year of M.Sc. in zoology, he took up the study of music at the University of Cape Town for four years, earning a living teaching in the Department of Zoology at Cape Town University. He won a university prize for composition. Completing a M.Sc. thesis on amphibian behaviour in 1955, he returned to the Department of Zoology in Pietermaritzburg as a lecturer in zoology in 1958, conducting research on the taxonomy, zoogeography and ecology of the Amphibia of southern Africa, which resulted in a Ph.D. thesis in 1960. The Department of Zoology had a distinguished record of research into various aspects of amphibian biology, which nurtured his interest in amphibians.

His musical activities continued in Natal, writing music for theatrical productions at the University of Natal. He was also involved with the South African Liberal Party. Experience in dowsing led to an interest in parapsychology, and an invitation to a senior lectureship in the Department of Zoology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg (1965) allowed involvement in the South African Society for Psychical Research, centred at Wits University. Full-time research in parapsychology followed resignation from the university in 1968, and a grant from the Parapsychology Foundation of New York allowed research among the Zulu people of Natal. In 1971 a lecturing appointment at the University of Natal, Durban, permitted continuation of this work while teaching medical biology. He also resumed taxonomic and zoogeographical research in the Department of Biological Sciences of Natal University, where he taught biogeography, other environmental subjects, and philosophy of science. The position of Associate Professor was awarded in 1981, later an ad hominem professorship in 1987. He married a colleague in the department, Margaret Wyllys Black, in 1980.

In 1987 he formed the Natal Branch of the South African Society for Psychical Research, combining this with an interest in Buddhist philosophy and practice. He gave winter school courses in parapsychology on the Durban and Pietermaritzburg campuses of the university. His society memberships covered the fields of general sciences, biological sciences, archaeology and parapsychology; he is honorary life member of the American Society of Ichthyologists & Herpetologists and of the Herpetological Association of Africa, in recognition of his research on the amphibian fauna of Africa.

At the end of 1991 he retired from the University of Natal as an emeritus professor of biology, and purchased the lease of a flat in Marylebone, London, in 1992. He received the Order of Meritorious Service from the South African State President in 1992, and became associated with the Natural History Museum in London, receiving grants from the Worldwide Fund for Nature. He was elected to the Council of the Society for Psychical Research, centred in London, and served as President from 2004 to 2007, and subsequently 2015 to 2017. In 2007 his wife Wyllys died of brain cancer.

His publications are in the fields of biogeography, taxonomy, ecology, evolution, philosophy of science, and parapsychology or psychical research, amounting to 111 books and monographs, book chapters and papers. In 2012, Kima Global Publishers of Cape Town published two novels, New Creation and Brief Authority in 2012, and The Life Play and New Enlightenment in 2013. The novels are 'protest novels' taking issue with the dominating materialist culture of the present times.

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