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Digby Johns McLaren, 1919 - 2004

Digby Johns McLaren's studies at Cambridge were interrupted by service in Iraq and Italy with the Royal Artillery. Returning there he obtained a first class degree in Geology under Professor W B R King, of whom he always spoke with great affection. In 1948, with his wife, Phyllis, he emigrated to Canada to join the lively group of palaeontologists at the Geological Survey in Ottawa. This group participated in the helicopter-assisted mapping of Arctic Canada, a survey which filled a huge, previously blank space in the map of North America.

Expertise in Devonian brachiopods and stratigraphy led to Digby (and others in the Ottawa group) receiving their PhD degrees from the University of Michigan, under the friendly supervision of Professor Jim Ehlers. Digby's knowledge of Devonian stratigraphy was tried and tested in leading work on the Silurian-Devonian boundary and selecting the site for the "golden spike", and continued until late in life when he went to the 32nd IGC (Florence, Italy) to speak at the presentation of the medal named in his honour.

Digby's capacity to lead and inspire his colleagues, and his canny insight into what was vitally necessary, led to his becoming Chief Palaeontologist (1959) and later (1967) the initial Director of the new Institute of Sedimentary Geology in Calgary. Earlier I had discussed with him the need for a new excavation of the Burgess Shale to obtain a collection for the Survey, and for an investigation of the then-unknown stratigraphy of the surrounding area. He arranged for a GSC party to undertake this work in 1966 and 1967, and invited me to oversee the palaeobiological studies. Thus his influence returned to Cambridge to inspire me and my colleagues in our new descriptions and interpretations of the Burgess Shale animals, research which still continues.

Many honours and leaderships came to Digby - as President of the Paleontological Society (1969), the Canadian Petroleum Geologists (1971), and the Geological Society of America (1982). He moved to Ottawa in 1973 to be Director of the Geological Survey of Canada, was elected to the Royal Society in 1979, and after retirement as Director, became President of the Royal Society of Canada, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and a valued adviser to the Government. To all these offices he brought new insights and a forward-looking vision. In his Presidential Address (1970) to the Paleontological Society he suggested that a large meteorite colliding with the earth might have caused widespread extinction, an idea that has reverberated down through the years in the study of exact timing, correlation and age of such events.

My first meeting with Digby was in 1953, many followed, and a last happy one after he had been to Florence, when he was frail but as alert in mind as ever. It is a privilege to have had the friendship of so outstanding and lively a scientist. He had a legendary taste in practical jokes, an appreciation of fine wines, skill in growing orchids, and conversations with him never flagged. His beloved wife Phyllis died a year before him; he is survived by his sons Ian and Patrick, his daughter Alison, and four grandchildren.

Harry Whittington