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Robin Langdon Oliver, 1921 - 2001

Robin Oliver was born in Wellington on December 21 1921, where his father was Director of the Dominion Museum. He studied geology at the Victoria College of Wellington, New Zealand University, and obtained Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in 1941 and 1943 respectively.

During 1943-44 he was called up for military service and joined a group of scientists coast-watching on Campbell Island - an uninhabited and rugged outpost in the South Pacific belonging to New Zealand. Here he spent his off-duty hours exploring and mapping the island's geology. From 1946-49 Robin worked as a photogeologist for Shell Oil in Venezuela; but he pined for an academic life and knew that he would have to obtain a doctorate to do so. With sedimentological studies in mind, he was accepted by Cambridge University; but after discussions with Prof. Tilley he changed direction to do a metamorphic study of the Borrowdale Volcanics of the Lake District.

Robin completed his PhD in three years and immediately obtained an Assistant Lectureship at Oxford. Two years later (1955) he obtained a position as photogeologist with the Canadian Photographic Survey Corporation. This company was contracted by the Colombo Plan Corporation to assist under-developed Asian countries. The posting took Robin to Pakistan for 10 months, followed by 20 months in Ceylon (see below).

In 1958 Robin was made Lecturer (subsequently Senior Lecturer) in Metamorphic Petrology at Adelaide. In 1959 he was invited to join an eight-person, New Zealand Alpine Club working party to the Beardmore Glacier region of Antarctica as Chief Geologist, ascertaining the stratigraphic position of archaeocyathid fossils previously found. It was the last of the self-hauling expeditions, about 900km all told. It was the first of seven such summer field seasons to south polar regions, the last coming as recently as 1981-82. He was reputedly the first person willingly to have dived off the Antarctic continent into the ocean (before witnesses).

Robin initiated, jointly organised and hosted the 4th International Conference on Antarctic Earth Sciences (Adelaide, 1982) on the centenary of Mawson's birth. The conference was a huge success (nearly 200 international visitors, 175 papers) and the conference volume was published within a year. He continued to publish regularly on metamorphic problems and continental match-ups throughout his career. For many years he was Chief Examiner in Matriculation Geology for the Schools SA Public Examinations Board. He was a Fellow of the Geological Society of London (from 1947), a Member of the Geological Society of Australia and served as committee member of the State Division for many years (twice as chairman). He was a member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and also the Royal Society of South Australia, and was Visiting Research Fellow in the Dept. of Geology and Geophysics, Adelaide University.

Robin Oliver was a particularly good friend of Sri Lankan geologists throughout the second half of the last century, for he contributed much to the greater understanding of the island's geology, particularly its structure. He first came to Ceylon (as it then was) in 1956, barely eight years after British colonial rule had ended, as part of the Hunting Survey Corporation team of Canada. They were under contract to produce a Tectonic Map of Ceylon by photo-interpretation of aerial photographs. Prof. Gerald Cooray, now Sri Lanka’s most distinguished geologist, assisted him in the photo-interpretation of the areas he was mapping at the time, while Oliver trained him in photogeological interpretation.

The two struck up a close friendship that lasted long after Oliver left Ceylon two years later (1958). Oliver's work culminated in the Tectonic Map of Ceylon on a scale of 1 inch to 4 miles, in four sheets (1962-63), later published (1985) as the Structural Map of Sri Lanka on a scale of 8 miles to 1 inch by the Geological Survey of Sri Lanka.

Prof. Cooray remembers Oliver as a “kind, soft-spoken and gentle person who ingratiated himself with all the Sri Lankans who came to know him. He was last in the island in 1995 - to receive the coveted 9th Ananda Coomaraswamy Memorial Medal, awarded by the Geological Society of Sri Lanka for his contribution to the better understanding of Sri Lankan geology”. His Memorial Oration was The Enigmatic Charnockite, an appropriate title for a group of rocks that continues to baffle local geologists. He is survived by his widow Helen, children Max and Suz and five grandchildren.

John Cooper & Sydney Reynolds