Obituary: Sir Laurence Kirwan

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The Independent Culture
THOUGH HE was not himself a geographer by training, the name of Laurence Kirwan must be placed highly in the record of those active in the development of geographical studies in Britain in the years after 1945.

When L.P. ("Larry") Kirwan took up his post in that year as Director and Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, great tasks lay in waiting inside the society's house in Kensington Gore as well as in wider spheres. Fellowship numbers needed revival and the Geographical Journal a new impetus. Contacts with growing university departments had to be improved and scientists and scholars from related disciplines drawn in. Rapid progress was required to re-establish the programmes of lectures and discussions. There were urgent calls to resume the organisation and support of field exploration. Contacts with overseas geographers had to be re-opened.

In some ways Kirwan was an unusual choice for the post. His time at Merton College, Oxford, had not produced a degree. However he had already acquired wide field experience as an archaeologist in Egypt and the Sudan. From 1929 to 1934 he was assistant director of the Archaeological Survey of Nubia of the Egyptian Department of Activities and he had acted as field director of Oxford University Expeditions to Nubia in 1934-37.

Kirwan was born in Cork in 1907, the second son of Patrick Kirwan of Cregg, Co Galway. He was educated at Wimbledon College before going up to Oxford. Afterwards, he was able to carry on fieldwork until 1938 and to publish (with W.B. Emery) two volumes of excavation reports and papers among which may be found the discoveries, at Ballana and Qustal in the Sudan, of the tombs of Sudanese kings of the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Oxford University awarded him an MLitt degree. From 1937 to 1939 he was Tweedie Fellow in Archaeology and Anthropology in Edinburgh University with opportunities for further fieldwork in the eastern Sudan and in Aden.

Meanwhile, Kirwan had been commissioned as a reserve officer in the Territorial Army. On the outbreak of war he became a staff officer and from 1942 to 1945 served as a lieutenant-colonel on the joint staffs of the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence. The experience he gained of the ways of government was to prove useful.

He was quickly at home in Kensington Gore: his very tall, straight-backed, handsome figure quickly began to personify the RGS. The staff there was small and not well paid and he did a great deal of work himself including for a time the detailed as well as the general editing of the Geographical Journal.

His emphasis was always on the maintenance of high standards. The house was opened up more easily to young people through schemes which encouraged them and their schools and colleges to join. Corporate membership brought in industries and business organisations. Administrative paperwork was kept low: young academic honorary secretaries were apt to be rebuked for lengthy minutes and memoranda. "Cabinet-office, brief, clear and unambiguous minutes are the style here!" he remarked. His own style, though active, was calm and relaxed.

On the expeditions side, the society's work flourished again. The Expeditions Committee was kept busy interviewing and making grants to young people. No other country in the world had (or has) the same level of activity in young scientific expeditions. Good plans for senior and society-sponsored expeditions emerged also. He was deeply involved, for example, in the planning of the Norwegian/British/ Swedish expedition to Queen Maud Land, led by John Giaver (1949/52), the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of Sir Vivian Fuchs (1955/58), the ecological survey of South Turkana (Kenya 1960/62) and the joint expedition with the Royal Society to the Mato Grosso led by Iain Bishop (1967/69).

Within the society he maintained the balance of interests between laymen, academics, mountaineers and field scientists, and between traditional and new approaches. The mountaineers had their greatest day in 1953 with the dramatic triumph of the Everest expedition. Kirwan had worked hard behind the scenes.

Kirwan was quick to appraise the post-war expansion of geography in universities and to keep in contact. He brought many young academic geographers into the work of the society. He became a member of the University of London Board of Studies in Geography and of the British National Committee for Geography of the Royal Society. In 1961/62 he presided over Section E of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Nineteen sixty-four brought the great success of the 24th International Geographical Congress held, under the sponsorship of the Royal Society, in the RGS and nearby buildings of Imperial College. Over 2,000 were present at the opening ceremony performed by the Queen. Kirwan worked hard as a member of the Executive Committee and his wife Stella played a notable role in charge of the Ladies Committee.

Throughout his 30 years at the RGS Larry Kirwan kept alive his interests in Nubia and the Sudan, finding opportunities to revisit. He was President of the British Institute in Eastern Africa 1961-81, Hon President of the Sudan Research Society 1962, and Patron of the International Society for Nubian Studies. He kept a special interest in the problems for archaeological sites and for the effect on the life and resettlement of Nubian peoples (for whom he had much affection) of the decision to build the High Dam. As Dudley Stamp remarked in 1961 when commenting on Kirwan's paper on Abu Simbel: "I am sure that there are times when he likes to escape from the sea of faces here to get back to the wilds of Nubia."

A new task came his way in 1965 when he was appointed a member of the Court of Arbitration in the frontier dispute between Argentina and Chile in which the British government had accepted the role of arbitrator. He led the field mission to examine the problem on the ground in the following year. The operation was a success and he had the satisfaction of knowing that the 1966 report to which he had made a substantial contribution was accepted by both the parties.

He was an influential member from 1968 of the Departmental Advisory Committee on the Landscape Treatment of Trunk Roads and its Deputy Chairman, 1970- 80. The duties involved frequent visits to inspect routes for new motorways and trunk roads and to advise on planting and landscape-design schemes. He enjoyed making landscape interpretations and arguing the case for integrating roads with the landscape.

Retirement from office in the RGS in 1975 brought many tributes. Appropriately he was awarded the society's Founder's Medal for "contributions to the geographical history of the Nubian Nile and of Eastern Africa". There had been, said the then President, "no reason to fear for the society's reputation and prestige while he was directing our affairs".

He was appointed CMG in 1958 and advanced KCMG in 1972. Among his many other honours, he was proud of his appointment as British Academy/Leverhulme Visiting Professor in Cairo in 1976. He published actively; probably the most widely read book has been The White Road (1959). This became better known as A History of Polar Exploration (Penguin, 1962). His eyesight troubled him greatly as he grew older but he bore bravely with his problems.

Michael Wise

Archibald Laurence Patrick Kirwan, archaeologist and geographer: born Cork, Ireland 13 May 1907; Director and Secretary, Royal Geographical Society 1945-75; CMG 1958, KCMG 1972; married 1932 Joan Chetwynd (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1949 Stella Monck (died 1997); died London 16 April 1999.