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Sir John Knill, 1934 - 2002

John Knill was an internationally renowned Engineering Geologist who combined a career in education, public administration and industry. In accepting the prestigious Hans Cloos Medal of the International Association of Engineering Geology and the Environment (2002) Knill acknowledged that his father (whohad been Water Engineer and Manager for Croydon Corporation) directed him first to geology and then engineering geology. Knill’s career subsequently took him all over the world – and had known all 13 of the Medal’s previous recipients..

Knill was educated at Whitgift School, Croydon. On graduating from Imperial College, London he carried out his doctoral research in the Scottish Highlands and concentrated on the small-scale deformation of low-grade metamorphic rocks. He then carried out studies into the groundwater resources of Greater Tehran, and dam sites in the Alborz mountain range north of that city.

His next 31 years were spent teaching and researching in engineering geology at Imperial College, London developing, in particular, an international MSc course. From the very start, he had the opportunity to work directly as a consultant engineering geologist on engineering projects, particularly dam and tunnel schemes, (including Latiyan, Roseires, Cow Green, Cruachan, Ardingly, Tyne, and Lar). His particular interest in the environment stemmed from work on the hydro- and engineering geology at Cow Green Dam, Durham. From this experience he learnt both the role of the engineering geologist, and the deficiencies in the systems that then existed to transfer geological information into meaningful engineering conclusions.

Imperial College recognised a good committeeman, and for many years he was deeply involved in administration, becoming Head of Department and Dean of the Royal School of Mines. Much of his time was also devoted to the creation of a professional ethos for geology in the UK. It was on Knill's instigation that the Institution of Geologists was established, set up to promote professionalism for public benefit. The status of Chartered Geologist (CGeol) is now recognised throughout the world.
He also had an opportunity to see something of the role of science in Government, becoming Chairman of the United Kingdom's Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC), and a member of Nature Conservancy Council, responsible for the conservation of over 2000 special Earth science sites. It came as no great surprise that with his experience he became Chairman and Chief Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council (1988-93).

In 1993 he returned to engineering geology, working mainly in dispute resolution, safety and risk in south-east Asia and the Middle East. His ability to ask searching questions in pursuit of the scientific facts was admired by his opponents at arbitrations worldwide.
Knill received many prestigious awards in recognition of his services to geology, including the Whitaker Medal (1969) of the (then) IWEM, the Aberconway Medal (1989) of the (then) Institution of Geologists, the William Smith Medal (1995) of the Geological Society of London and the Hans Cloos Medal (2002) of the IAEG. His services to science were recognised by a knighthood (1994).

Knill fought cancer for many years but did not allow this to affect his enthusiasm. During a period of treatment he chaired the working group of the Geological Society of London to review its Charter and Bye-laws. On moving to Newbury, by way of recreation, he established a vineyard that combined his interest in good wine and the effect of geology and slope aspect to viticulture. The evidence he gathered that his vineyard was located on drumlins (a glacial feature) was compelling, though a paper showing that the glaciers of the last ice age extended further south than is generally accepted was left unfinished.

Knill's other hobbies included model earthwork equipment, toy soldiers and computer games. A colleague remembers his insistence at playing Napoleon in a Battle of Waterloo simulation (which had a rather different outcome!). Knill is survived by his wife Diane, whom he married in 1957, and their son and daughter.

Rodney Chartres