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Edward Howel Francis 1924-2014

Distinguished Survey geologist and President of the Geological Society of London

Howel Francis

Editor's note - Owing to an oversight, an incomplete unfinalized version of this obituary was published both in the print Geoscientist and here, online.  What follows is the final version that should have been submitted.

Edward Howel Francis, known as Howel , was born in Cwmafon, West Glamorgan, on 31 May 1924. He died on 22 May 2014, a week or so  short of his 90th birthday.

Howel attended Port Talbot County School 1935-42 and then went on to University College, Swansea (now Swansea University).  His studies were interrupted by Army service from 1944-47 after which he returned to the University and was awarded his BSc in Geology in 1949.

In that year he was appointed as a field geologist to the Edinburgh office of the British Geological Survey. He and his wife Cynthia established themselves in Edinburgh, where they lived for over 12 years and where their daughter Susan was born. Howel worked in the North Lowland Unit where he rose rapidly through the ranks to become a Principal Geologist in 1958. His research in the  coalfields and the publication of several papers eventually led to his being called as an expert witness in the Lofthouse Colliery disaster enquiry in 1973 and, in 1975, to head the British Government's mission to the Philippines to advise that country on its mining industry.

In 1962, he was appointed Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, in the same year that he became District Geologist in charge of the North of England Unit of the Survey, based in Leeds. After five years he moved as District Geologist to the North Wales Unit, and three years later  was promoted to Assistant Director (Deputy Chief Scientific Officer) of the Leeds Office.

Throughout this period he continued to publish peer-reviewed research papers on Carboniferous and Permian volcanics. In1969, in recognition of these original contributions, the University of Wales awarded him the DSc. His research output continued steadily, well into the 1980s. He had been Chairman of the Volcanic Studies Group of the Geological Society (1970-72) and a member of the Society Council (1972-74). Further recognition of, not only his research but his contribution to the geological community at large, came with the award of the Murchison Fund of the Geological Society of London (1963), the Clough Memorial Medal of the Geological Society of Edinburgh and the Sorby Medal of the Yorkshire Geological Society. He also made an important contribution to the standing of Geologist as a profession in that, while still a Survey geologist, he was appointed a member of the Geological Society Working Party on Professional Recognition. Subsequently, he served on the Council of the Society and became its President (1980-82).

In 1977, by then in his fifties, he took up the challenge of a Professorship in the University of Leeds. The newly appointed Professor Francis joked that he had doubled the length of his working life by so doing. Supported by Cynthia, he immersed himself in the academic and social life of the University to the full, sharing the problems and successes of staff and students alike. Within the University, he served on the Boards of the Faculties of Applied Science and Science among other committees. He was a charismatic lecturer and leader. With his drive and enthusiasm and during his time as Chairman, the Leeds Department was rated as one of the few top departments of Geology in the University Grants Committee restructuring of Earth Sciences in the UK.

In 1989, the year he retired from Leeds, he was awarded the Major John Sacheverell A'Deane Coke Medal of the Geological Society for his 'major contribution to British Palaeozoic volcanism and stratigraphy, and his wide ranging contributions to the Geological community'.  He was also appointed Honorary Fellow of Swansea University in that year.

On the day of his funeral, the University of Leeds flag was lowered to half-mast in tribute.

Howel was a keen golfer, a lover of good food and wine, a generous host, a keen, well-informed birdwatcher and a considerable opera buff. After retirement and Cynthia's death he moved back to South Wales where he spent happy years with his partner, Edwina. He is survived by Edwina, by Susan, daughter of his marriage to Cynthia, and by two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Tony Harris



In 1977, Howel began a second career, making the unusual move in his mid-50s of leaving the Geological Survey and entering academia as Professor of Geology in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Leeds. His appointment was testament to the quality of his research; while in the Survey he was a pioneer in the application of modern ideas from volcanology to the Palaeozoic igneous rocks of the UK, and equally expert in coal geology. Much of this research was carried out in his own time.

In over 12 years at Leeds University (as well as being President of The Geological Society from 1980 to 1982) Howel was Head of Department for more than half that time, steering it successfully through the UGC (University Grants Committee) Review of the Earth Sciences in the late 1980s and subsequent restructuring of the national Earth Science provision in UK universities.

Howel quickly transformed himself into an academic leader and enthusiastic lecturer. Supported by his late wife Cynthia he immersed himself in academic life to the full, sharing in the problems and successes of students and staff alike.

Delivering his first undergraduate course at the age of 53 must have been daunting, but Howel made immediate impact in the lecture room and in the field (notably leading the first year Easter field class to Fife), drawing on his broad experience in classical geology and on his gifts to engage and enthuse students and professionals alike. Equally empathic, Cynthia would often accompany these trips and would find herself in an unofficial pastoral role to students. Howel was highly supportive of young researchers on the staff, seeing them and his students as professional geologists in the making, and expecting them to develop accordingly through their time.

In 1989 Howel was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of University College, Swansea (now Swansea University) upon his retirement from Leeds University. Cynthia died in 1997 after a marriage lasting 45 years.

Howel was a charismatic lecturer, speech-maker and raconteur; he was an adept cricketer in his younger days and continued to pay golf regularly well into his 80s. In retirement he also became a keen birdwatcher. He will be remembered by those who knew him as a fair but firm academic leader, for his warm personality and sense of humour, and, above all, as an honest man.

Jim Briden, Marjorie Wilson, Bruce Yardley,
Bob Cliff, Alastair Lumsden, Graham Stuart & Rob Knipe