OBITUARIES: Marjorie Sweeting

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The Independent Online
Marjorie Mary Sweeting, geomorphologist: born 28 February 1920; Research Fellow, Newnham College, Cambridge 1948-51; Fellow and Tutor, St Hugh's College 1954-87 (Emeritus); Lecturer and Reader, Oxford University 1954-87; died Oxford 31 December 19


Much of the essence of Marjorie Sweeting's character and enthusiasms is encapsulated in the story of a convalescent friend (whose appendix had just been removed) whom she took potholing on the North Yorkshire moors in the late 1940s as a way of recuperating. As Sweeting expected, the combination of limestone, fresh air and scientific enquiry (helped along by decent food and drink) was sufficient tonic for anyone sensible. That passion for investigating the arcana of karst (limestone country) scenery - from Yorkshire to China - remained an abiding feature of her life.

She leaves as memorial not only an important general text on limestone, but also (in manuscript with Springer Verlag) the first comprehensive Western account of China's spectacular and extensive karst scenery. Whether or not this interest was simply a legacy from her geologist father, a lecturer at Imperial College and a close colleague and companion until his death in the 1970s, there can be no doubt that Marjorie Sweeting would wish to be remembered, first and foremost, as an earth scientist. Accidents of time and place meant that she was labelled a physical geographer; but there is a host of pupils and colleagues, world-wide, who recognise her as a key international figure in the post-war description and investigation of global limestone landscapes.

However, Marjorie Sweeting was also an old-fashioned Oxford tutor. She moved from a Research Fellowship at Newnham, Cambridge, to a Lectureship at St Hugh's College in 1951. She remained at St Hugh's as Tutor and Fellow and then Emeritus Fellow, until her death. The university made her an ad hominem Reader in 1977, and she officially retired from both college and university posts in 1987. Despite her research commitments, she was nevertheless a dedicated - and also extremely competitive - mentor of theyoung. In fact, one sometimes felt that her early experience in the Cambridge Women's Blue Boat had left rather too enduring a mark, since she talked of grooming her charges for the Final Honour School in much the same protectively bullying vein as an at hletic coach.

Nevertheless for many years she ploughed a pretty lonely furrow at Oxford, not only as one of the very few women holding both university and college posts in Geography, but also as an advocate of "scientific" studies in a school which was, to be charitable, not exactly world-renowned in the Fifties and Sixties, for its dynamic and research-oriented views. Sweeting had, in fact, a string of able research students, as well as her undergraduate pupils, and she did much to keep Oxford Geography in touch with international trends. Her university career culminated in a stint on the General Board and a period as Acting Head of Department in the interregnum between two (male) professors.

Before the last year of her life, when a progressively aggressive illness gradually curbed her mobility and sapped her vitality, Marjorie Sweeting was a great traveller, and an indefatigable hostess; a sports aficionado who found breakfast television an enormous boon; and an opera-goer whose main regret was that she never managed to visit Bayreuth.

Barbara Kennedy 94.