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Michael John O'Hara 1933-2014

OHaraDistinguished petrologist and Professor at Aberystwyth, Cardiff and Edinburgh, responsible for implementing the UGC ‘Oxburgh Review’ of Geology.

Mike O’Hara was one of the leading petrologists of his generation. It has been said that modern igneous petrology and geochemistry would not be the same without Mike’s many discoveries, creative efforts, and deep insights. He pioneered the use of experimental and theoretical petrology to unravel the processes involved in the formation of the ocean crust from the underlying mantle. He was also one of the original Apollo scientists who investigated the rocks returned from the Moon. He was awarded the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society of London and both the N L Bowen and Hess Medals of the American Geophysical Union for his contributions to petrology and his “outstanding achievements in research of the constitution and evolution of the Earth and other planets”.

Mike was born in Sydney, Australia in 1933. This led Ted Ringwood, his great Australian rival in subsequent debates on the origin of the Moon, to threaten “to get his passport revoked”. The family moved to England when Mike was just one year old. At the outbreak of war in 1939, Mike’s father was stationed in Pwllheli in North Wales, where he was brought up. On Good Friday 1945 his Mother took him to the funeral of David Lloyd George on the banks of the River Dwyfor near Llanystumdwy in Eifonydd, North Wales. This was to presage a long association with Wales and lifelong support for Welsh rugby.

Mike went up to Cambridge in 1952 and joined the Spitsbergen expedition in 1953. This started a life-long love of mountaineering. He was persuaded to follow a career in geology rather than becoming a mountaineering instructor by Stuart Agrell, and studied at Cambridge (under C E Tilley) for his PhD on the high pressure-high temperature Scourie gneiss.

He moved to Edinburgh in 1958 to continue his research with Arthur Holmes and Fred Stewart. In 1962-1963 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship at the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institute in Washington. He spent the year with Frank Schairer and Hat Yoder. He returned to Edinburgh in 1963 where he established a high pressure-high temperature laboratory to study igneous petrology. He was awarded a personal Chair in Edinburgh in 1970 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In 1978 he moved to Aberystwyth where he chaired the Geology Department. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1981. He spent two years at the Sultan Qaboos University, Oman in 1988-1990 before moving in 1994 to Cardiff where, as he wrote: “an outstanding late-career opportunity...illuminated my last decade”.   As Distinguished Research Professor he spearheaded a new world-class petrology group that included inter alia Julian Pearce, Yaoling Niu and Chris Macleod.

Mike O’Hara was a full member of the University Grants Committee (UGC) and chaired the UGC Earth Science Review National Committee during 1986-1988, which shaped the modern form of UK University geoscience. His contribution to the Cardiff School of Earth and Ocean Sciences helped establish the department as a major international centre for research and teaching in the Earth Sciences.

Michael John O’Hara’s scientific success lay in his vision and an approach that did not follow bandwagons but continually challenged tradition and authority. He was a likeable and approachable man who hid his great scholarship and intense concern about the subject under a veneer of humour. Many Earth scientists worldwide owe much to his unstinting encouragement and advice. He will be greatly missed.

David Rickard