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Alec Kenyon-Smith 1932-2015

styiDistinguished sedimentologist, academic leader and founder of the magazine Geology Today.

Alec Smith died on 12 November 2015 following a heart attack. He was born in Wakefield in January 1932 but his family moved to Wales in 1934 where he grew up. Married first to Joan, he had a son and a daughter. Later, in 1990, he married Anita, who survives him, and changed his name to Kenyon-Smith.

He won the John Hughes Open Scholarship to UCW Aberystwyth (1950-53) and graduated with 1st Class Honours in Geology. He stayed on for postgraduate research based on a study of the Aberystwyth Grit Series, which involved examining the coastal cliffs from New Quay to Borth. There he learned how to interpret turbidites and understand their formation. After three years he was awarded a PhD (1956). Having won an ‘1851 research postdoctoral scholarship’, he continued for one more year, leaving in 1957, having set up a project on turbidite sedimentation in the Polish Carpathian mountains, with Krakow University

University of London

He then embarked upon a 35-year career in the University of London. In 1957 he was appointed lecturer in Geology at UCL and 10 years later was promoted to Reader. During that period he focused on an investigation of the submarine geology of the English Channel, in collaboration with Bristol University. In a succession of research cruises he mapped the seabed sediments across most of this huge area by collecting core and dredge samples. He discovered that the channel had been formed as a result of at least two catastrophic floods, publishing in 1985: “A catastrophic origin for the palaeovalley system of the eastern English Channel”. Marine Geology 64, 65–75.

“The partially infilled valley system found in the floor of the eastern English Channel is not typical of a normal river system. Instead, the valley formed in a catastrophic flooding event. It is unusually straight and wide, with prominent, streamlined margins and kilometre-scale grooving of the valley floor; the axis of the valley contains elongated islands characteristic of megaflood erosion. This megaflood must have come about by the breaching of a permafrost-sealed Chalk barrier at the site of the present Dover Strait in late Quaternary times. This permitted the scouring of the exposed Channel floor and modified the palaeovalley system. He estimated that at least 100,000 km3 of flood waters were involved in this short-lived event were released from a lake developed between an ice front in the central North Sea and the northern limb of the Weald-Artois anticlinorium.”

They cascaded through the Dover Strait, leaving plunge pools that remain, infilled, to the present day. The first flood was initiated some 425,000 years ago during a major extension of the continental ice sheet into lowland central Europe and Britain. A second massive discharge occurred about 155,000 years ago.

Alec was also very active in studying sedimentary geology of various regions of Japan (1972-92) and was Visiting Professor at Tokai University, Japan (1975-80). He was a participating sedimentologist with the Deep Sea Drilling Programme, Leg 87, Nankai Trough off SE Japan (1980-85). He was also fascinated with the origin and alteration of ikaite (CaCO3.6H2O) that is only stable in water just above freezing, which he worked on with Doug Shearman. It is best known from its occurrence in Ikka Fjord (S. Greenland), though he was never able to see it in situ.

Bedford College

In 1977 Alec was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Geology at Bedford College and set about creating a modern and vibrant department. Soon after his appointment he became caught up in University politics.  In March 1980 we all had to respond to the Swinnerton-Dyer ‘Committee on Academic Organization’ that had been set up to investigate the workings of the University of London with a view to rationalisation.  Each with a small geology department potentially at risk, Alec and I (as head of Geology, Chelsea College) agreed to keep all options open but decided that a policy of active response to the Swinnerton-Dyer Committee would be wiser than maintaining a low profile, despite the inherent risks. We privately agreed to see what we could do to bring the two departments together, the first step being to consult our colleagues about the idea. Alec invited the Chelsea teaching staff across to Bedford for a joint meeting (March 1981). There, we agreed that the idea was worth pursuing; but how to do it?

Alec hit on the brilliant idea of creating an impact by sending a telegram to the University Secretary at Senate House saying that the two Departments would like to amalgamate and asking how the University could help us to achieve this end, and this he did on behalf of us all.  His initiative succeeded beyond all expectations and, as they say, the rest is history. Meanwhile it took until May 1982 for Bedford College to agree to move to Egham and join Royal Holloway and only in February 1984 was agreement reached for the Geology Departments of Chelsea and King’s Colleges to join Bedford at Royal Holloway.

Thus, in 1985 Alec was appointed Foundation Professor of Geology and Head of the new department at Royal Holloway, but such was the haste of those later decisions that the department had to be housed in Portakabins for the best part of a year until Queen’s Building became habitable. Alec’s first priority was to agree on the design of the new building that we had been promised as part of the deal. Alec had a tremendous task to get things together, starting from scratch to recruit new staff and students, create new undergraduate degree programmes with a balanced repertoire, organise the structure of the department and advertise our presence.

In July 1985 he appointed Julie Brown who moved from Bedford College as Departmental Secretary and became the anchor that held us all together. We were boosted by two new academic staff appointments in October 1985 – an “Academic Initiative” post won by Alec for Dr Martin Menzies as Lecturer in Geochemistry and a Lectureship in Sedimentology for Dr Lynne Frostick. Within 12 months we were joined by Dr Ken McClay, Dr Dave Waltham and Dr Dan Bosence, bringing our academic staff complement to 21. He also secured the funding for major new equipment, including a mass spectrometer to support the research of Matthew Thirlwall. His enlightened leadership was pivotal in creating a style that has endured very successfully for the past 30 years. He retired in1992, and assisted the Principal at Royal Holloway until 1995.

Geology Today

In addition to his responsibilities at Royal Holloway he organised several national and international conferences: he was elected Treasurer (1971–77) and Vice-President of the Geological Society, London (1990); President of the Geologists’ Association (1980–1982); Chairman, Greenwich Forum; Chairman, Watt Committee on Energy; Chairman, Geological Grants Committee, Natural Environment Research Council; President, Section C (Geology) British Association for the Advancement of Science, (1991–92); Geological Advisor to Kuwait University, (1991–92); and creator of the magazine Geology Today (1985).

He received many awards: The Coke Medal of the Geological Society of London (1990); Fellow of the Society for Underwater Technology; and Fellow of Royal Holloway University of London (1998). His record of over 100 published scientific papers is prodigious. He was also the author, or co-author, of four books: Geology (1974); Exclusive Economic Zones - British Dependencies; Geology of England and Wales, Geological Society (1993) and The Evolution of Clastic Sedimentology (2005).

The Earth Sciences Department at Royal Holloway is his legacy.

Derek Blundell