Donald McIntyre

Mountaineer, geologist, scholar and teacher

Born: 15 August, 1923, in Edinburgh.

Died: 21 October, 2009, in Scone, Perth, aged 86.

DONALD Bertram McIntyre was a wonderful, multi-faceted man whose brilliance shone modestly out in all the many fields he embraced. Drawn to the Scottish hills as a climber in his youth, he came under the spell of the great and reclusive figure of Arthur Holmes, regius professor of geology in the University of Edinburgh. As principal architect of the geological timescale, Holmes was arguably the greatest British geologist of the 20th century. McIntyre's lecture notes are now deposited for safekeeping in the university library and contain the germ of Holmes's early ideas on what became, only in the late 1960s, plate tectonics.

As student and lecturer under Holmes, Donald was recognised for his scientific brilliance with his election to fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh before he was 30. Head-hunted by Pomona College at Claremont in southern California, he then spent his entire career as head of the geology department in that American liberal arts college, returning to Edinburgh most summers to undertake scholarly historical research, principally on James Hutton (1726-97), founder of modern geology.

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On his retirement from Pomona College, he returned to Scotland, where his brilliance was of great benefit to the inhabitants of Perth especially.

McIntyre was always proud of the fact that his birthday fell on the same day as Sir Walter Scott's. He was born in Walker Street at the West End in Edinburgh, son of the minister of Morningside High Church, now the Church Hill Theatre. Educated at George Watson's College in Edinburgh and Grantown Grammar School, where he was Dux in 1942, McIntyre entered the University of Edinburgh and graduated in 1945 with first-class honours in geology. His PhD (1947) and DSc (1951) following quickly.

Of his many publications, he was particularly proud of having written a scientific paper on the atomic structure of fluor-apatite and its relation to that of tooth and bone material in 1946 with Dr Arnold Beevers.

McIntyre came to geology especially through his love of climbing. His exploits are recorded by him in 1999 as honorary president of the Perth Mountaineering Club, the oldest such club in Scotland. On Friday, 5 September, 1941, he and his friend Ian Baikie had climbed the seven highest Cairngorm hills in a single day.

By his death, the Edinburgh Geological Society, founded in 1834 and the fourth oldest geological society in the British Isles, has lost its oldest surviving member – he became a fellow in 1943.

Selecting the difficult ground of north-west Scotland as his principal area of geological research, McIntyre was sent by Prof Holmes in the summer of 1947 to spend a year at Neuchatel, studying the structure of the Alps under Professor Wegmann.

In Britain, modern structural methods were applied to highly deformed rocks, particularly by Dr Gilbert Wilson of Imperial College in London.

On 2 July, 1954, McIntyre read a paper on the Moine Thrust, that intriguing structure to be seen so well at Knockan Crag, to the Geologists' Association in Burlington House in London. At the end, asked what was the age of the Moine Thrust, he replied as quick as a flash: "Well, we know it's older than the peat."

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In 1951, at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in Edinburgh, McIntyre organised the entire section C geology activities. Prof Holmes was not around.

Moving to Pomona College in 1954, McIntyre was a renowned teacher and head of department in a particularly geologically active part of the North American continent (the San Andreas Fault zone). In 1985 his efforts were recognised by the governor of California when he was made Teacher of the Year.

In the early 1960s, he became a pioneer of the application of computers to geology, attending meetings and writing several papers in this then new field. In September 1971, he was one of only two Edinburgh alumni to give a keynote address at the centenary meeting of the Foundation of the Regius Chair of Geology at Edinburgh University. He was the first to speak in the large lecture theatre on the Thursday morning. As he rose to his feet, it soon became clear that he had problems. First he removed his jacket and sat down, then got up and, changing tack completely, delivered an amazing discourse on all the wonderful Raeburn portraits to be seen in Edinburgh and beyond.

Earlier, in August 1968, working in the then Scottish Record Office on the Clerk of Penicuik papers, McIntyre had discovered evidence in the diaries of John Clerk of Eldin, artist and friend of James Hutton, to show that Clerk of Eldin was himself geologically aware. In his excitement, Donald rushed up the North Bridge to tell Charles Waterston, then keeper of geology in the Royal Scottish Museum, only to find Waterston examining a folio of drawings, mostly by Clerk of Eldin, which Lady Clerk had brought in from Penicuik House that very day. James Hutton's Theory of the Earth: The Lost Drawings, a librarian's nightmare if ever there was one, was eventually published in 1978.

On a wet and windy 26 March, 1997, McIntyre delivered a eulogy to James Hutton in the Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh to mark the exact bicentenary of Hutton's death.

Also in 1997, McIntyre was the opening speaker at The Royal Society of Edinburgh's Hutton bicentennial meeting, held in the Royal College of Physicians, in Queen Street in August that year. His address, published in the journal Earth Sciences History: James Hutton's Edinburgh: The Historical, Social and Political Background, with its 57 pages including 12 pages of bibliography, is a must for anyone seriously interested in the Scottish Enlightenment.

For the general reader, McIntyre's booklet, James Hutton, 1997, published originally by the Stationery Office and republished by the National Museums of Scotland, remains available.

On his retirement from Pomona College, McIntyre moved back to Scotland in 1989 with his wife, Ann, and his only son, Ewen, settling first at Kinfauns near Perth and then in the centre of Perth. He became chairman of Perth Civic Trust and delighted in showing visitors the geological aspects of Smeaton's bridge across the Tay, for example. He was also honorary archivist of the Scottish Mountaineering Club.

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Donald was also a frequent invited speaker at meetings in the United States and elsewhere on applications of computing methods.

A few days before he died, in a care home in Scone, a piper played the tune Professor Donald McIntyre in honour of a wonderful and remarkable man.

• Our appreciation of Robert Clark (12 November) was wrongly attributed. It was, in fact, written by Irene Goulding.