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Peter Graham Harris 1924-2012

Peter Graham Harris

Former Professor at Leeds noted for his mantle research, and later outstanding Head of Geology Department at The University of Western Australia, Perth

Professor Peter Graham Harris of Leeds University and later of the Geology Department in The University of Western Australia (UWA) passed away peacefully in Perth on 25 February, leaving daughters Clare and Emma. Sadly, his wife Tessa had recently predeceased him.

Peter was born in New Zealand in 1924, entered the Victoria University College in Wellington, and gained his PhD at Leeds in 1953, becoming Professor of Earth Sciences from 1971-75. Some of his earliest work was on Tristan da Cunha, the main island of a group east of the Mid Atlantic Ridge opposite South Africa. When eruptions in October 1961 forced the evacuation of residents, the Royal Society sent him with a colleague to reconnoitre and check on the stability of the area. Party field work and extensive laboratory studies followed.

Peter later produced a stream of individual and joint papers about Tristan da Cunha, mantle rocks, Recent volcanism, the composition and genesis of magmas, the origin of kimberlites, the evolution of the Earth and related topics. These were published mainly between 1962 and 1975.

In 1975, he was appointed Professor of Geology at UWA. His background differed from those of most local staff, and his presence proved stimulating. He guided the research of others rather than continuing with his own, and managed the Department with energy and foresight. He felt that Departmental research on artesian water was slight for an arid region, and supervised some research students himself.

In 1982 diamonds were discovered at Argyle, Western Australia, and the Fourth International Kimberlite Conference was held in Perth in August 1986. Many local geologists were inexperienced in diamond exploration, and Peter helped organise an introductory two-day seminar in 1984 attended by 175 participants.

Senior University student groups at the time were overwhelmingly male. Female lecturers were few, and women were rare in geological surveys and mining companies. Female students, aware of their poor employment prospects, often did not persist. Thus, in a continent depending significantly on its complex geology, the science itself lacked the contribution of many potential researchers. Peter encouraged talented female students to remain, and tried to get finance and positions for them. He anticipated the swing to gender balance in science, and is kindly remembered as a result by many former students.

Peter was tall but quietly spoken, with a friendly approach. If as Head of Department he differed with another staff member, he generally managed to confine their differences while getting his way. He was made Dean of the Faculty of Science from 1985-87, and a member of the Academic Council and Deputy Chairman of the Academic Board.

Peter’s background in the archaeology and history of the Maoris, and the early civilisations of the world with their use of minerals and rocks, was extensive. He was a fascinating conversationalist in these areas.

His even-handedness with staff, and sound judgement, helped him guide the diverse Department as a cohesive group. Scientific Departments are complex, and Peter’s appointment was timely and singularly effective.

John Glover