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Michael O’Donoghue 1934-2016

syriGemmologist, bibliophile, author and organist who became Curator of Earth Sciences at the British Library.

Michael O'Donoghue was a remarkable gemmologist, bibliophile, librarian and musician, with a mischievous sense of humour when you got to know him. His interest in Earth science did not develop until he was in his thirties.  He studied English, in fact, as his first degree.

Born on 30 November 1934 in Leicestershire, his mother was a schoolteacher and his father rose to a senior position in one of the large railway companies. He was educated in Wyggeston Grammar School and Queen Elizabeth I College, but in addition from the age of nine went to Leicester Cathedral to learn to play the organ and was soon playing during services in his own church - a practice he continued throughout his life.

Following National Service in the RAF (1954-56) working in personnel selection, he was offered a commission to join the full-time service, but chose to take up a place in Selwyn College, Cambridge graduating in 1959 (MA 1962). In a letter published in Selwyn College's newsletter in 2003, Michael recalled a favourite pastime along with Michael Lyon, later Professor at Aberdeen University, of riding a bicycle being towed by a car, before both became addicted to motorbikes.

After university, he worked in Cambridge University Library for a year before moving on to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.  He returned to London in 1962, having been appointed to work in the Dept. of Printed Books in the British Museum (now the British Library). Initially he worked in the State Papers Room, but then transferred to the Science & Technical Section (later the Science Reference Library), as Curator of Earth Sciences, remaining there until his retirement in 1991.

On returning to London he commenced evening classes in gemmology and after completing the qualification in 1969, started teaching the course at what is now London Metropolitan University. Michael became recognised as one of the UK's leading gemmologists and was well known to many London jewellers.  He wrote over 20 books on various aspects of his subject, plus innumerable papers and led field trips to the major gem locations in the world, including Pakistan, USA, Poland and the former Soviet Union. He also lectured abroad and advised foreign mine owners and government departments.

Michael was elected FGS in 1972, serving on its Library Committee from 1986 until 1999.  He was also a key player in the founding of the Society's Geological Information Group. A Fellow of the Mineralogical Society from 1999, he also served on the Council of both the Gemmological Association and Gem Testing Laboratory of Great Britain from 1998 and also the Deutsche Gemmologische Gesellschaft. He edited the newsletters for most of the societies he belonged to.

Somehow Michael also found time to be actively involved in the Samaritans between 1967 and 1991. He remained committed to music giving lunchtime organ recitals in St. Giles in the Field in central London, in addition to playing in his own parish church in Sevenoaks, where he was a pastoral assistant. 

Michael collected books in a big way. Inviting the authors of this obituary to his Sevenoaks home to be shown some of his prize possessions, both were stunned to discover that the front door would barely open due to boxes of books stacked up behind it.  Books filled every available space in the house, on shelves, in piles from floor to ceiling, on tables and even on beds! It gave him great pleasure to donate some 1700 books from his library to Cambridge University in 2006.  His gem collection he gave to the Sedgwick Museum. 

Occasionally on his visits to the Society Library, Michael would take a minute cut stone out of his pocket to show the library staff, before casually mentioning that it was priceless! The librarians were always terrified that he would drop it between the cracks in the floorboards.

Michael died on 16 June 2016, leaving Annie, his wife of over 45 years, and three children, Lucy, Clare and Peter. The last named, having inherited both his father's love of books and history/heraldry, is Librarian at the College of Arms, and York Herald.

By Wendy Cawthorne and Sheila Meredith