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Grosvenor Rex Davis 1922-2016

rtjuMining geologist who recognised the importance of sedimentary processes and became Head of Department at RSM

Rex, as he was generally known, was born in Walmer, Cape Province, South Africa.  He studied geology at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, graduating with a BSc in Geology in 1942, Honours in 1948 and a PhD in 1951.

Between 1942 and 1966 Rex was involved in mineral exploration and production in Northern and Southern Rhodesia (Now Zambia and Zimbabwe) and Uganda.  Like most geologists who survive beyond 30 he had many adventures while engaged in fieldwork.  On one occasion he climbed out of a dry riverbed and peering over the bank found himself looking into the face of an astonished lion.  Fortunately the lion was more astonished than Rex, did a quick back flip and headed off fast into the bush. 


When Rex was a student the prevailing view on the origin of mineral deposits, apart from alluvial placers, was that they were principally sourced by hydrothermal fluids of deep crustal origin.  Thus mining geologists were experts in ‘hard’ rocks of igneous and metamorphic origin, rather than the ‘soft’ sedimentary rocks.

Rex’s own observations of the Zambian Copper Belt confirmed the then heretical views of Bernard, Garlick, Fleischer and Wolf, that some mineral deposits result from sedimentary processes of mineral concentration and precipitation (at variance with the current view that, apart from placers, most mineralisation came from hydrothermal processes).  In the copper belt there was a clear correlation between the ore minerals and the depositional environment of the host sediments.

In 1966 Rex was appointed Professor of Mining Geology at the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College after 24 years’ practical experience as a mining geologist.  Rex’s Inaugural Lecture ‘Mining Geology in Prospect’ was delivered on 6 June 1967.  In those days, Inaugural Lectures were still published.  His makes interesting reading half a century later.  It is a masterly global overview of mineral economics, exploration and extraction technology (including the use of nuclear explosives), education and research.

Rex came to Imperial College with two big ideas.  One, based on his experience in Africa, was his appreciation that sedimentary processes had as much to contribute to mineral exploration as hydrothermal ones.  He required mining geology students to take a new course in sedimentary environments.  This did not go down at all well with the macho students of the Royal School of Mines who thought the study of sedimentary rocks was ‘a bit girly’.  Rex required a newly appointed young lecturer to deliver the course.  The member of staff responsible for drawing up the timetable had a wicked sense of humour and scheduled the lectures for 2.00pm on Friday afternoons, a time when mining students were generally to be found training for the weekend in the Union bar.


Rex’s second big idea was to use the expertise of the Royal School of Mines to win research contracts with outside bodies to train postgraduate students, maintain industry links and generate income for the Department.  In this he was fulfilling the words of the Imperial College Charter: ‘to give the highest specialized instruction and to provide the fullest equipment for the most advanced training and research in various branches of science, especially its application to industry’.  Unfortunately the Rector of the day thought that Rex’s idea of setting up a sort of ‘RSM Ltd.’ was ‘like taking in dirty washing’.  Only research grants from the various government research councils were worth obtaining.

One morning while commuting to college Rex chanced upon an IC alumnus who was then working in North Sea petroleum exploration.  They discussed the common association of mineral deposits and petroleum.  The next year the alumnus happened to join the staff of the IC petroleum group.  A successful conference ‘Forum on Oil & Ore in Sediments’ was organised and the proceedings published in 1977.  This was the catalyst that resulted in Rex applying to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a research contract to survey its mineral resources.

The application was successful and the ‘Cover Rock Project’, as it was called, ran for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  During this period Rex made many trips to Saudi.  He took advantage of the fact that the Saudi weekend was two days out of phase with ours.  He was often seen leaving the department on a Friday afternoon clutching a small overnight bag on the way to Heathrow to catch the evening flight to Riyadh, returning in time to lecture on Monday morning.


In 1974 Rex took over from Professor John Sutton as Head of the Geology Department, and had the great misfortune to do so just as the money supply declined.  Within the first term of his Headship a 10% cut on expenditure was imposed across the College.  Since 90% of a department’s budget was spent on staff salaries, there was not much room for manoeuvre.  All photographic and reprographic work in the Geology Department was banned for the next few months. 

oiyp89yPicture: The ‘Changing of the Guard’.  In 1974 Rex succeeded John Sutton as Head of the Department of Geology

Rex’s spell as Head of Department was not a happy time for him, the department or academe at large.  Sutton was the last of the Baronial department heads who could hire and fire on a whim unrestrained by the shackles of committees.  Rex’s experience in the hierarchical mining industry made it hard for him to adjust to this new consensual form of university government wherein heads of departments were restrained by committees, rather like Marley’s ghost, shackled with chains and cash boxes.

Rex crossed swords with the Rector again when the Professor of Petroleum Geology retired in 1977.  By then the North Sea was established as a major petroleum producing province.  The Rector, who had a low opinion of geology anyway, saw no need for a replacement in petroleum geology and saw no need to fill the post.  Rex tendered his resignation.  Fortunately the Rector blinked first.  A new professor was appointed and the department has developed as a major global leader in petroleum geoscience.  Rex left Imperial College in 1982 at the age of 60, somewhat bruised by his 16 years in academe.  He rapidly established himself as an international consultant in mineral exploration, based in Dorking in the summers, and South Africa in the UK’s winter months. 

Rex received various honours and awards.  He was President, an Honorary Member and a Gold Medallist of the Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.  He was elected FREng in 1983.  He was a Freeman of the City of London and of the Worshipful Company of Engineers.  He was Geological Society of London member of the Camborne School of Mines Board of Trustees.

Like many geologists the word ‘retire’ was not in his vocabulary.  He was an enthusiastic member of the Mole Valley Geological Society, his local group of the Geologists’ Association close to his home in Dorking.  Rex was still writing peer-reviewed articles at the age of 73, continuing to give ad hoc lectures here and there, and playing bowls regularly until his death.

In 2009 Rex and his wife Elizabeth moved from Dorking to St George’s Park, Ditchling.  Elizabeth died in 2014.  Rex died on their 60th wedding anniversary shortly before his 94th birthday.  He left a son and a daughter, 5 grandchildren and many admirers around the world.  Grosvenor Rex Davis: born 16 September 1922, died 9 July 2016.

Dick Selley, with help from Dennis Buchanan, Paul Garrard, Andy Rankin & Rex’s family.