Obituary: Professor John Barry Dawson, geologist

Professor John Barry Dawson. Picture: Contributed
Professor John Barry Dawson. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 19 June, 1932, in Leeds. Died: 2 February, 2013, in Edinburgh aged 80.

PROFESSOR Barry Dawson BSc, PhD, FRSE was a distinguished scientist and geologist who travelled the world researching volcanos and the cause and effects of their eruptions. He concentrated much of his field work in Africa, but his reputation as an academic and lecturer at Edinburgh University was acknowledged by geologists worldwide.

Over many years, he led study groups to Oldoinyo Lengai, a most unusual volcano in Tanganyika – it is thought to be the only active carbonatite volcano in the world. Dawson’s writings added a fresh and stimulating understanding to the geology of the volcano and his detailed research added considerably to his standing in the profession.

Many former students at Edinburgh recall a most genial and friendly lecturer, who was a good listener and enjoyed stimulating discussions on a variety of subjects with his students.

Former student Dr Sally Gibson, now at Cambridge University, remembers him with much warmth. “Barry was generous with his time and the extraordinary breadth of his knowledge. He enjoyed teaching and sharing his knowledge and experiences with us.

“He was an exceptional scientist and keen to spot and nurture young talent. As a man, it was a pleasure to be in his company and benefit from his generosity and advice. For me, and many students, Barry was special.”

John Barry Dawson was born outside Leeds and, after attending a local school, read geology at Leeds University. Despite his many years in Scotland, he was to remain a proud Yorkshireman all his life. He studied for his PhD at the Centre for African Studies in Leeds (1956-1960) where he did research into kimberlite magmas and their xenoliths (a rock fragment thatbecomes enveloped in a larger rock).

Dawson then made his first trip to Africa, working as a geologist for the Tanganyika Geological Survey. He returned to the area often, but that first trip was to remain central to his professional career. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1964 and lectured first at St Andrews University then, from 1978, at Sheffield University and finally at Edinburgh (from 1989).

At all three, Dawson encouraged students both in the classroom and on field trips. He was acknowledged as an international authority in magmatism (the molten rock material under the earth’s crust) and he published widely on the subject in several scientific journals.

While at St Andrews, Dawson collaborated with Professor Joseph V Smith of Chicago University in analysing the composition of rocks and minerals brought to the earth’s surface. Once, when they were sawing up a rock the blade jammed and, quite fortuitously, Dawson discovered he had found a layer of diamond. It proved a unique finding and their further research showed that diamond formation was not connected with volcanic activity, which geologists had previously suspected.

It was his work in Tanzania for which Dawson gained a particular renown among his colleagues. He first visited Oldoinyo Lengai and the Tanzanian Rift Valley in the 1960s when he worked as a geologist for the Tanganyika Geological Survey. On that occasion, he mapped the region and climbed the volcano for the first time.

In 1988, he revisited the area with a team of student geologists – having heard it was about to erupt. It proved a most exciting expedition, with Dawson mapping the active vents of the summit crater and gazing in amazement at the volcanic eruptions. A student on the field study, now Professor David Pyle of Oxford University, recalls that throughout Dawson calmly delivered “impromptu tutorials on the alkaline igneous rocks as he watched the astonishing eruptive display of this bizarre volcano. At night, Barry enthusiastically continued his extempore lectures over a wee dram.”

Although Dawson retired in 1997 – when he was made Emeritus Professor of Geology at Edinburgh University – he continued to remain active, carrying out valuable research. Only two years ago, he gave a key note address at the Department of Earth Sciences at Bristol University and three weeks ago he completed a research paper with Dr Gibson. “Barry remained alert and as bright as ever,” she recalls. “He was a wonderful storyteller, loved the outdoors and walking the Scottish hills – he ‘bagged’ many Munros.”

In 1968, Dawson won the Clough Memorial of the Edinburgh Geological Society and last year was awarded the Collins Medal of the Mineralogical Society. The citation read: “The medal is awarded to a scientist who, during a long and active career, has made an outstanding contribution to pure or applied aspects of Mineral Sciences and associated studies.”

Dawson’s wife, Christine, predeceased him and he is survived by his son and two daughters.