Obituary: Professor M. M. Cole
Saturday 22 January 1994
M. M. COLE was a leader in her chosen field of academic research. During her distinguished career she produced pioneering works in the fields of biogeography and geobotany, remote sensing and terrain analysis, and mineral exploration. Her research spanned Central and Southern Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, Australia and, latterly, China and Finland. But Cole was not the archetypal quiet and contemplative academic. She was a larger-than-life character, and things were never dull for those who found themselves around her.
Monica Cole was born in London and attended school in Wimbledon, where she was recognised by her peers as a polymath and gifted at sports. From here she went up to Bedford College, London, which was at that time an all-female college of the university. She graduated in 1943 with a First Class Honours degree in Geography, having taken Geology as a subsidiary. Between 1944 and 1945, she worked as a Research Assistant in the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, and it speaks volumes for her perspicacity that, in 1947, she was awarded a doctorate for a study of the economic geography of building materials.
As with so many of her generation of academic geographers, she took up her first lecturing appointment overseas, at the University of Cape Town in 1947. This was short- lived, for a year later she moved to the University of Witwatersrand, where Professor John Wellington headed the Department of Geography. With the early expansion of the redbrick universities, Cole returned to Britain to take up a lectureship at Keele University, where she was subsequently promoted to Senior Lecturer.
But the most decisive step in Cole's career came when she returned to her Alma Mater, Bedford College, to take up the Chair of Geography. From 1964 to 1975 she was Head of the Department, and she presided over its early expansion. By the early 1970s, Cole had engineered the development of one of the most extensive suites of analytical laboratories to he found in a British geography department.
Monica Cole was one of the first British geographers to bring work in the discipline to the attention of the wider scientific community. Following her early studies of plant indicators of mineralisation, she was swift to recognise the utility of the techniques of remote sensing, and from 1971 onwards she carried out investigations which were sponsored by the UK Department of Industry and the Ministry of Technology, in collaboration with the Australian Bureau of Mineral Resources, and on occasion under contract to Nasa. This was at a time when few geographers were involved in contract and consultancy research. From 1972 she served as a member of the Department of Transport Advisory Committee on the Landscaping of Trunk Roads, a task which she greatly enjoyed.
It was characteristic of Cole that she could not abide what she saw as 'armchair geography', although this could show itself in the form of impatience. She championed the cause of overseas geographical research at a time when some notable senior members of the profession had been warning of the dangers of 'otherwhereitis'.
For Cole there was no geography without fieldwork, a perspective which shows in her two major published works, The Savannas - Biogeography and Geobotany (1986) and South Africa (1961, with two further editions). Although the latter was criticised as a result of the pre-eminence given to the environment at the expense of the pressing issues of people and race, it represented the first major work on the territory.
In 1975, when she relinquished the headship of the department to Professor Ron Cooke - now Vice-Chancellor of York University - she was designated Director of Research in Geobotany, Terrain Analysis and Related Resource Use. In 1985, Bedford College amalgamated with Royal Holloway College to become Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, from whence she retired in 1987. However, she continued her work by means of a Leverhulme Fellowship, and was appointed Emeritus Professor at Royal Holloway.
Monica Cole was noted for her forthright manner and determination. She was always immaculately dressed, frequently wearing bright colours which reflected her ebullience and tenacity. She was a formidable adversary, but those who knew her well knew that she was prepared to take as much as she gave. Most conspicuously, in the 1960s she scaled the heights of a profession that, even today, finds all too few women as the incumbents of chairs.
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