Obituary: Professor Sir Malcolm Brown
Friday 04 April 1997
The first lunar sample arrived in Durham in September 1969, where it was exhibited at the Gulbenkian Museum, and so great was the interest in this single representative of the lunar soil (regolith), that at times the queue of people wishing to see it extended for nearly a mile. The samples received in the laboratory, however, included not only the powdered soil, but actual samples of solid rock and thin and polished sections made from them. The investigation was mainly by physical means using X- ray fluorescence and electron microprobe equipment already installed in the new building occupied by the department. The results had a wide international circulation.
Brown was born in 1925 at Redcar, North Yorkshire, a seaside resort where his parents owned a boarding house. He was educated at Coatham School, Redcar, and in 1944 joined the RAF, where he became a friend of the actor Richard Burton. In 1947 he was admitted to University College, Durham, as an undergraduate reading Chemistry, but included Geology as a subsidiary subject in his first year. Working under Professor L.R. Wager, well-known for his exploits on Mount Everest and on the ultrabasic rocks of Skaergaard, Greenland, Brown's interest was sufficiently aroused for him to offer geology as his honours subject. He graduated with first class honours in 1950, and when Wager left for the Chair of Geology at Oxford he accompanied him to undertake research there.
The existence of layered ultrabasic rocks in the island of Rhum had recently been discovered and this became his DPhil research subject. On completing his doctorate in 1953 he was offered a Commonwealth Fund (Harkness Fellowship) tenable at Princeton University where, from 1954 to 1955, he furthered his research in igneous rocks. Returning to Oxford he became Lecturer in Petrology in 1955 and was made a Fellow of St Cross College in 1965. He renewed his involvement in Lawrence Wager's interest in layered basic intrusions, eventually described in a book, Layered Igneous Rocks (1968), much of which was written by Brown. Its preparation had involved a visit by both authors to the Bushveldt Complex, north of Pretoria in South Africa, generally agreed to be the prototype of such bodies. Brown had also earlier joined an expedition to the remarkable Skaergaard Intrusion led by Wager and W.A. Deer, which he was amongst the few privileged to visit.
ln 1966, aided by a Carnegie Fellowship, he spent a year at the Geophysical Laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, pursuing a research programme devoted to experiments on the melting of granite. The same year, Kingsley Dunham resigned the Durham Chair to return to the Geological Survey and Brown was invited to fill it. He was already an experienced teacher of petrology; his lectures attracted an increasing number of students and affected their interests in later life. Necessarily he was also obliged to take an increasing part in administration, and this led at the end of his time in Durham to his appointment as Dean of the Faculty of Science and to the Pro-Vice-Chancellorship in 1979.
It was a prolific period of research not only on terrestrial igneous rocks but also on the rocks recovered by the Apollo moon expeditions. Brown led a research team which included Henry Emeleus, Roy Phillips, Granville Holland and, later, Andrew Peckett. These studies led to the publication of 31 original papers, representing about one quarter of Brown's lifetime output. In addition, Brown was still able to find time to initiate major research into the petrology, geochemistry and evolution of the volcanic rocks of the Lesser Antilles and to extend his interest in the Tertiary Igneous rocks of west Scotland.
In 1979 Brown was appointed Director of the NERC Institute of Geological Sciences. IGS had been formed to incorporate the Geological Survey of Great Britain, the Overseas Geological Surveys and the Geological Museum. One of the earliest effects of Brown's Directorship was the change of name to British Geological Survey, a beneficial step.
Less beneficial was the fact that, owing to changes of government policy towards the research councils, a considerable reorganisation of the staffing was undertaken. This led to heavy losses in the complement of senior posts, particularly those of the rank of SPSO and above. The total staff that had built up to over 1,150, partly in response to the system of contracting to major spending departments, such as DTI, MFP and the DoE, under Lord Rothschild's initiative, was reduced to about 850, but Brown succeeded in preventing the dismissal of a large number of good junior men who had been engaged on short-term contracts but later, in response to union pressure, had become established.
Meanwhile, less and less funding became available for field operations in the UK and the Director decided to use his scientific staff to write up their results without engaging in new fieldwork. An unprecedented flow of Sheet and other Memoirs of the Geological Survey was the result, but this was necessarily at the expense of new surveying and of revision. Moreover, since the post of District Geologist in the 11 districts covering the UK had virtually ceased to exist, it was no longer obvious to the interested public to whom they should apply for geological assistance and information.
A further blow was the loss of the Geological Museum. Dating from the early 19th century, this had been established by Sir John Flett in South Kensington in a new building re-established at the centenary of the Geological Survey in 1935. The growth under the IGS had made necessary a major move of survey field staff away from London, and at Keyworth in Nottinghamshire a recently built teacher-training college had become available; this became the main Geological Survey Headquarters. Malcolm Brown's Directorate witnessed the move of 500 staff here away from the London and Leeds offices; he himself was, we believe, glad to get away from London and raised with the Research Council the question of the future of the museum. Sadly, the council decided to offer it to the adjacent and recently connected British Museum (Natural History). In view of the strongly practical slant of this geological museum this decision aroused considerable criticism but it was not possible to reverse it and the Geological Survey became the poorer for the lack of its accessible centre in the national capital.
After his retirement from BGS in 1985 Brown returned to Oxford where he set up as Consulting Geologist.
Throughout his life Malcolm Brown attracted and retained many friends. His first marriage, alas, was not a happy one and was dissolved in 1977. His second, to Sally Marston, was, by contrast, exceptionally happy and brought him the close companionship of a family with two teenage stepdaughters. Above all, it provided what he described as "the 12 happiest years of my life".
Kingsley Dunham and Granville Holland
George Malcolm Brown, geologist: born Redcar, North Yorkshire 5 October 1925; Professor of Geology (Emeritus), Durham University 1967-79, Dean of Faculty of Science 1978-79, Pro-Vice-Chancellor 1979; FRS 1975; Director, British Geological Society 1979-85; Kt 1985; twice married; died Headington, Oxfordshire 28 March 1997.
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