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Keith Atkinson 1942-2017 - A memoir

Memories of a colleague and dear friend

vxhmkKeith was born and grew up in Port Talbot, where he attended Dyffryn Grammar School. He then spent about eight years at Aberystwyth University as undergraduate, post-graduate and finally Research Fellow. Thus Wales was his launching pad and spiritual home, and this allegiance emerged in his passionate support for the Welsh Rugby team. He loved the game and the singing of the Welsh supporters.     At the time of the 6 Nations Championship I could count on a flurry of emails, usually along the lines of “may the best side win – as long as its Wales”. However Cornwall was definitely Keith’s adopted home, living in the County for nearly fifty years. It was in Cornwall that Keith’s daughters, Caroline and Roz grew up and where he established his illustrious career. In accepting his lifetime achievement award in 2009 he told the audience ”If I had my time again I would try and do it better but I would not do it anywhere else but Cornwall.”

Keith was appointed Lecturer in Geology at the Camborne School of Mines in 1969. At that time the School was based in its original 19th century buildings in the centre of Camborne, where his office was adjacent to the smoky assay lab run by Ross Polkinghorne.  Victor, the hapless geological  technician, lurked in the background with endless cups of tea and occasionally made a thin section. This was a far cry from the eventual comforts of the Principal’s Office on the Trevenson site which we moved to a few years later. Keith later recalled that on his appointment he had been advised that he would be teaching Mineralogy so spent the summer vacation making preparations, only to be told on arrival in September that the plan had changed and he would be teaching something totally different. No problem! Keith was an able geologist and could teach across a wide range of geological subjects.  He was equally at home making a presentation to an international conference or a classroom of primary school children. He had the skill of pitching his teaching at the right level. He also brought tremendous energy to the task.  I remember once entering a room where Keith had just delivered a lecture – it was still vibrating with energy!

In the late 1970’s Keith led the development of the first Masters degree in Mining Geology and was Course Director for many years.

Our first cohort of students benefited from the enthousiasm we all felt in those early days but they also acted as guinea pigs. I recall our innovative practical examination which was designed to test the problem-solving skills of our fledgling mine geologists. Books could be consulted and the examination had no time limit. One poor soul remained in the exam room for 12 hours and almost had to be carried out on a stretcher.

The Masters degree provided a passport to a career in the mining industry for many geologists. In that context I received an email last week from Stephen Pevely, mine geologist at the Ranger Mine near Darwin, Australia who was one of the first Masters students. He writes: "I have many fond memories of the diligence, care and stewardship Keith demonstrated during the inaugural 1980-81 mining geology masters year. It appeared to me that Keith wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to teaching, and I remember after delivering a lecture using his own materials for the first time on a subject (I think it was porphyry copper deposits) he commented to those few of us remaining in the lab that he felt he had not delivered it particularly well. He appeared totally crestfallen and disappointed at his own efforts. This level of self-criticism was an example of how much care he invested in his teaching to ensure that this Masters course, though new, was of the highest standard. It speaks volumes as to the conscientiousness of his approach.

Keith’s research and publications were as wide ranging as his teaching and included geophysics, slope stability, minerals processing and Tertiary  geology. However, the main thrust was based on a research team we established together in the mid 1980’s to study different aspects of mine waste. Some aspects of this work led to a paper we published jointly with Paul Mitchell and Caroline Waller for which we were awarded a silver medal by the IMM in  1990.

From time to time the School of Mines received a visit from a representative of the publishers Chapman & Hall seeking potential authors on scientific subjects. I vividly remember Keith approaching me over the coffee cups in the staff room one morning and saying “Rich, I reckon we could write a book about ore deposits”.

I’m a sucker for volunteering, especially if the time scale is fairly vague, and immediately agreed. However, teaching the subject and writing a book are very different matters. We had a meeting to decide chapter headings, which was followed by a period of inaction and then three years of frantic research and writing.  Keith was increasingly absorbed by administrative matters at that time so much of his writing was done in the middle of the night. ‘Ore Deposit Geology” was published in 1986 and received very good reviews. However, one of our wives commented acidly  “Book is a four letter word”.

Some years later Maureen had decided that they had too many books and took a large consignment to a charity shop. Soon afterwards Keith noticed that his copy of ‘Ore Deposit Geology” had disappeared from its customary place on the bookshelf. Panic stations! In order to placate him Maureen went on line and purchased a copy from Amazon for the princely sum of £65. The following week Keith found the original copy in a cupboard!

Keith was a keen sportsman. I have already mentioned his passion for rugby, particularly  if played in a red shirt.  He was a very effective medium pace swing bowler playing for the CSM cricket team. Keith was also a good squash player; I played squash with him weekly for about five years, often cheered on by Mike Buzza.  We had some good games but I only managed to beat him once!

The survival of CSM as a small college with only a few hundred students became an important issue in the early 1990’s and one of the ways forward was to merge with Exeter University. Keith played a leading role in the negotiations, which eventually led to the merger in 1993. He was appointed Principal of CSM in 1994 and appointed Deputy Vice- Chancellor of Exeter University in 1997. One of his roles was to re-structure the University departments and he also established the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. This led to a very fruitful period of collaboration with the Ruler of Sharjar, in the United Arab Emirates, with whom Keith formed a warm friendship.  Keith helped to establish a university there, which rose from an empty site in the desert to a fully- functioning campus with 6000 students. His Highness has contacted Maureen with his sincere condolences saying “Your husband was a wonderful man”.

Keith’s CV can only be described as truly awesome and there is no way I can mention all his achievements. I have decided to limit my account to five of those of which he was most proud:

  1. Keeping CSM on top.  I should explain that in the 1990’s many University Mining Departments were either amalgamated or closed. Now I quote Keith’s own words: ‘By 2000 only two Universities were still admitting and teaching undergraduate mining engineers and it is a source of great pride to me that when I retired as Head, the Camborne School of Mines was the stronger of these, certainly in recruitment terms’
  2. Being awarded a Fellowship of the Camborne School of Mines by the CSM Trust for his outstanding contribution to Mining and minerals education in Cornwall.
  3. Being given the title of Emeritus Professor by Exeter University. Keith really appreciated this approbation by his colleagues within the University and it meant a great deal to him.
  4. Being appointed the first Provost of the University in Cornwall and playing a key role in establishing the Combined Universities in Cornwall on the Tremough site.
  5. Last but not least, the academic  attainments of his grandchildren.

I have talked about Keith’s achievements , but what about the man himself? Firstly he was a very private and modest man who never boasted about his success. He was great company with a quick sense of humour and had an endless fund of amusing anecdotes. I remember him recounting how on an industrial tour with final year students in southern France they discovered that the hotel they had booked turned out to be brothel.     

 At a recent lunch in the Norway Inn he was recalling an incident when he was interrogated by an agent from MI5 on the basis of having been observed getting into a car with a man being investigated by Interpol. The man had been posing as a geologist, but Keith had already been alerted by a student who shared the man’s lodgings. “He can’t be much of a geologist Doc he can’t even identify cassiterite”

Keith fought the battle with heart problems and cancer with his customary humour, great courage and fortitude. I want to pay tribute to the loving care that he received from Maureen during this difficult period in their lives.

I began by recalling Keith’s love of rugby and the singing of the Welsh supporters. One hymn, always sung at international matches, which he confessed made the hairs on his neck stand up was ‘Calon Lân’ .         

Here are the words of the first verse, rendered into English:

I don’t ask for a luxurious life

The World’s gold or its fine pearls

I ask for a happy heart

An honest heart, a pure heart.


Richard Edwards