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Rudolf Trümpy, 1921-2009

The passing of Rudolf (Rüdy) Trümpy on 31 January 2009 has left a deep void in Alpine geology and in the lives of his wide international circle of friends, colleagues, and students. He was a sophisticated internationalist, geologist, and linguist of great knowledge, humour, wit, kindness, and humanity.

Rüdy, whose father and three uncles were geologists, was born in Glarus on 16 August 1921. A confident and intellectual boy, he discovered, in his grandmother’s library, Jakob Oberholzer’s Geologie der Glarneralpen and Alfred Wegener’s Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane. The latter made him a lifelong continental drifter. The former galvanised him to investigate the geology of his native mountains and to do some mapping as a schoolboy. Against his father’s advice but with the encouragement of his uncle, Jean Tercier (Professor of Geology in Fribourg) he entered the Natural Science Section of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich in 1940, where he was a contemporary of Alberto Bally and Frances Delany. At ETH, he was taught by Rudolf Staub (badly prepared, but inspiring), Alphonse Jeannet (determinedly spoke only French), and Wolfgang Leupold (lovable but anarchic). Rüdy regarded Paul Niggli, Paul Scherrer (physics), and Hans Pallman (pedology) as his best lecturers. For his Diploma Thesis, he mapped the remote Ladral Valley in Graubunden, when he introduced the concept of the Sub-Helvetic nappes. Rüdy was ineligible for military service because of short-sight but became the youngest member of the Geological Army Service and learned how to interface with civil engineers.

On graduating in 1945, he worked, during the summer, for Maurice Lugeon and Elie Gagnebin at the then very small Institute of Geology in Lausanne where he developed a keen interest in the Helvetic Lower Jurassic. Returning to ETH, he did his PhD on these strata and was the first to recognise early Jurassic normal faulting in the Alpine realm, an observation that was to become of critical importance in plate tectonic Alpine reconstructions. He then returned to Lausanne as “Chef de Traveaux” where, upon Gagnebin’s death in 1950, he found himself in charge with the assistance of Jean-Francois Agassiz. He stayed on in Lausanne for six years under Heli Badoux (an excellent field geologist and likeable man), did a huge amount of teaching, and mapping in the Chablais Prealps of the Valais and Haute Savoie, married Marianne Landry, and had his two children. While in Lausanne, he mapped Pierre Avoi in the lower Valais, where he established a stratigraphy, dated the Barremian to Aptian conglomerates, and also studied the pebbles in the Oligocene conglomerates north of Lake Leman, which demonstrated the huge former extent of the Simme Nappe and Austro-alpine nappes.

Following the claustrophobic war period, the 1948 International Geological Congress in London afforded Rüdy the opportunity to travel to take field trips, especially the Northwest Highlands of Scotland, where he met Sir Edward Bailey, Carlo Migliorini, and John Tuzo Wilson (whom he attempted, unsuccessfully, to convert to continental drift). In 1953, Rüdy was appointed as “Extraordinary Professor" at ETH and the University of Zürich, where he was to spend the next 33 years until his retirement in 1986. During this time, he established himself as the master of Alpine geology by meticulous, field-based, studies of the Alps, especially the origin of the Pre-alpine nappes by detachment along Carnian evaporates from the distal Saint Bernard Nappe, and the derivation of the Helvetic nappes from a zone of subducted basement between the Aar and Gotthard Massifs. The central theme of his work, throughout his life, was the relationship between Alpine paleogeography and tectonics. He recognised that the relationship between facies belts and nappes is very complicated and that most Jurassic marine breccias were developed along extensional fault scarps. He also showed that the Glarus nappes are part of a single sheet with the same provenance. He was the first to call attention to the probability of large sinistral Cretaceous displacement in the Alpine realm. In 1958, he spent a field summer in East Greenland, where he demonstrated that Permo-Triassic marine sediments were deposited in rift basins open to the north. Rüdy was a wonderful host to foreign visitors and groups to the Alps, both at ETH and in leading spectacular, superbly-organized, field trips, after one of which Preston Cloud persuaded him to write his famous Paleotectonic evolution of the Central and Western Alps, which established his international reputation.

Rüdy was a very good, well-prepared, lecturer and teacher. He lectured and gave speeches fluently and, seemingly, effortlessly. I was mildly surprised when, chatting to me, he took a small shot of brandy before leaving to give a lecture. “Oils the works!” he said, with a wink and grin. He became Dean of Science at ETH, and Treasurer then President of the IUGS and was in constant demand for lectures and speeches. I remember, particularly, his masterful speech at his friend Bert Bally’s retirement symposium and party in Houston in 2001. During his last years at ETH, he devoted most of his time to undergraduate teaching, which was reflected in the vast audience that attended his farewell address.

In “retirement”, Rüdy concentrated mainly on the history of geology and corresponding with his friends around the world. He received many honorary degrees, medals, and memberships of academies, including the Wollaston Medal. He was the consummate intellectual Swiss gentleman. His life’s work is testimony to meticulous field work in geology combined with vision and the ability to analyse and synthesize large amounts of data. He was also great fun and a good friend.

John Dewey