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Knud Ellitsgaard-Rasmussen 1923–2009

Rasmussen Knud Ellitsgard-Rasmussen was born on 23 June 1923 at Gilleleje (a small fishing town north of Copenhagen) in Denmark. He initially trained as a joiner, entering higher education after the Second World War, studying geology and obtaining his masters degree from Copenhagen University in 1952. In the immediate postwar years the Danish government decided that systematic geological mapping should be undertaken in Greenland and established the Geological Survey of Greenland (Grønlands Geologiske Undersøgelse, GGU). In the 1946 summer field season Ellitsgaard went to Greenland, as a field assistant in the mapping of Precambrian basement rocks between Nuuk (Godthaab) and Disko Bay. He was one of several Danish students employed as part of the Survey policy of training young geologists who would go on to map in Greenland and in 1948 he was assigned an area of Archean low-metamoprhic rocks near Aasiaat (Egdesminde). This study formed the basis of his masters’ thesis, for which he was awarded a gold medal from the University of Copenhagen. In 1949-50 he overwintered in southern Peary Land, North Greenland, as a member of Eigil Knuth’s Danish Peary Land Expedition. Accompanied by a Greenlander sledge driver and dog sledge, he undertook a reconnaissance of deformed sedimentary rocks in part of the Palaeozoic Ellsmere fold belt, publishing the results in 1955.

Ellitsgaard was appointed leader of GGU in 1956 and director in 1966, and he remained in this position until his retirement in 1983. During these 27 years he was instrumental in building GGU into an institution with a staff of more than 120, nearly half of whom were geoscientists and many coming from several European countries in addition to Denmark. In the summer field seasons groups of up to 150 scientists and support staff went to Greenland, including foreign geologists and research students from universities in Great Britain, Holland, Switzerland and Scandinavia,. Initially the work of the Survey concentrated on basic mapping and field geology, with the emphasis gradually changing more towards economic geology, but throughout Ellitsgaard encouraged basic research, to the great benefit of those on summer contracts who were enabled to pursue a variety of investigations based on field work in superbly exposed and frequently geologically unknown terrains. The opportunity to engage in fieldwork alongside geoscientists from a wide variety of backgrounds was a stimulating experience, for which many are much indebted to Ellitsgaard for having made possible. Initially the Survey concentrated on coastal areas in West Greenland, working from small boats, coastal camps and ‘lightweight’ tents carried inland, but to allow coverage of less accessible parts Ellitsgaard introduced the use of helicopters and, when the survey extended to East Greenland, he obtained funding to provide a ship with helicopter pads as a floating base for exploration around Scoresby Sund and, later, for a substantial tent base when it was necessary to work farther north. Obtaining the necessary funding for these activities demonstrated Ellitsgaard’s considerable skills as a negotiator as well as a scientist. The large number of geological maps and publications from GGU are a testament to the effectiveness of his leadership.

Ellitsgaard’s contributions to geoscience were widely recognised. He was a Foreign Member of the Geological Society (1968), received the Egede Medal from the Royal Danish Geographical Society (1976) and was awarded an honorary DSc by Exeter University (1984). He was a member of the Danish Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland from 1965–1983 and of the Danish Academy for Technical Sciences from 1967–97, and was elected to the Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in 1974. He served on Greenland Home Rule’s National Park Council and on the boards of mining companies prospecting in Greenland.

Although Ellitsgaard was inevitably much occupied with administration, he was always approachable and those who worked with him will always remember the kindness and hospitality he and his wife Else extended to all, whether from Denmark or abroad.

We are indebted to N Henriksen and C T R Pulvertaft for help with this account and to the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, GEUS, for the photograph (print version only).

Henry Emeleus, Brian Upton.