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Walter Brian Harland, 1917 - 2003

Brian Harland's life in research and education spanned a remarkable period of change in the scientific study of the Earth. In the 1950s Harland was an advocate of the theory of continental drift at a time when support for the idea was limited to geologists from South Africa and Australasia, and most scientists in the northern hemisphere dismissed the idea as ridiculous.

Another aspect of field geology based on rock study that fascinated Harland was the discovery of rocks formed in ancient ice ages, hundreds of millions of years older than the recent Great Ice Age. He gathered information from all over the world and found that evidence for an Ice Age about 600 million years ago was remarkably widespread. Although continental movements might have explained some of this distribution, he made the radical suggestion that the Earth had been subjected to extreme glaciation at that time. Current research by many scientists on climate change has recognised this work as forerunner of the Snowball Earth theory, that the entire Earth may have been covered with ice.

Harland was born in Scarborough and educated at Bootham School, in York. North Yorkshire's spectacular coast helped greatly to give him an early interest in geology. In 1935 Harland went up to Gonville and Caius College Cambridge, where he graduated with Double First Class Honours in Natural Sciences (Geology). In 1938 he embarked on PhD work, with the object of using explosions to investigate the structure of the ground below the surface, particularly in East Anglia.

In 1942 he travelled to Chengdu to join the teaching staff at West China University to teach geology, and he was joined there eventually by his wife, Elisabeth, whom he had married earlier that year. Various factors led to their return to Cambridge in 1946, where Harland had been offered a teaching post in the Department of Geology.

Harland's teaching work was always of paramount importance to him. He pioneered the incorporation of fieldwork as a regular part of the curriculum, and is remembered by perhaps two thousand students for his leadership, over more than 30 years, of first year trips to the Island of Arran in western Scotland. He really relished the task of training young scientists to make simple observations and then argue on the basis of these observations, ignoring all preconceptions. His energy and staying power in the field were legendary, and the picture remains in many minds of his leading a half-mile long crocodile of students round the north Arran shore, with geological titbits of information relaying backwards from the dynamic head.

Immediately on graduation, Harland had joined a geographical expedition to Spitsbergen. Harland became fascinated by the geological potential in this high Arctic island group. After his Chinese work, and on return to Cambridge, he decided to revisit Spitsbergen and began to develop the remarkable programme that eventually resulted in no less than 43 summer seasons of expeditionary fieldwork, of which he personally led 29.

His increasing activity in the Arctic naturally led to involvement with the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, but he was always more geologist than polar man. He was convinced of the benefit to the teaching of the Department that his expeditions provided, in addition to their research importance. More than 300 undergraduates and staff, including about 50 graduate collaborators were involved. Out of the necessary organisation he founded the Cambridge Arctic Shelf Programme (CASP) in 1975, which in 1988 became a scientific research company with charitable status, which now employs some 30 staff and works worldwide. Harland was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his exploration and mapping work.

Harland believed in the crucial importance of preserving information and making it available. He also believed strongly in the value and responsibility to collaborate with other scientists. He became Honorary Secretary of the Geological Society of London in 1963 and continued in this post for seven years. He decided that it would benefit the science if the Society became more of a centre for collaborative research. His method of achieving this was to initiate a remarkable series of multi-contribution books, which eventually led to the Society's Special Publications series, which has now produced more than 200 volumes.

Harland was author, principal contributor and/or managing editor of volumes on The Phanerozoic Timescale (1964), The Fossil Record (1967), and Mesozoic and Cenozoic Orogenic Belts (1974). The idea of these major collaborative works was a new one, and involved Harland in much diplomatic effort, as well as the normal editorial grind. He was awarded the Geological Society of London's Lyell Medal.

Harland became an important player on the worldwide geological scene when he became Secretary of the International Geological Correlation Programme. Harland had a well developed sense of patterns in space in three-dimensions. He produced remarkable three-dimensional cardboard cut-outs to illustrate geometries to students. But this skill was not simply used in his science. He also relished designing gadgets for surveying and measuring. Harland enjoyed his role in Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, of which he was a Fellow from 1950, and Life Fellow from 1984. He based much of his later research organisation and writing in his College rooms, and valued his friendships with the people he met.

Peter Friend