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John Alfred Catt 1939 - 2017

dfyjQuaternary geologist at Rothamsted Experimental Station, and expert on the geology of Hertfordshire

John Catt was upright, modest and a gentleman, in every sense of the word and he is deeply missed by family, colleagues and friends. John was born in Kent in April, 1939 the son of a gardener who worked at the local vicarage. The Anglican Church was an institution he was soon introduced to and one with which he remained closely associated for the rest of his life.

Photo: JAC at Bourne Gutter, Herts.  Picture: Nick Pierpoint


John was educated through Ashford Grammar School and, in November, 1956 made the arduous train journey northwards to be interviewed by Lewis Penny, Head of Geology at the University of Hull. He was immediately offered a place to read for a joint degree in geology and chemistry. However, to quote John, “after the first breathless year of 22 hours lectures plus 12 hours practical classes per week I pleaded with Lewis and John Neale to join the Special (single) Honours Class in Geology.”  John never looked back; he gained an upper second class degree, which gave him access to a doctoral scholarship to study the Quaternary of East Yorkshire.

The next three years (1960-63) were, “the happiest and most stimulating of my life.” He completed his thesis within the requisite three years of his grant and immediately took up the position of Scientific Officer, in the Pedology Department at Rothamsted Experimental Station, Hertfordshire. He stayed at Rothamsted for the rest of his professional career, rapidly progressing to Principal Scientific Officer in the Soils and Plant Nutrition Department (1977) and becoming Deputy Head of Rothamsted (Acting Head of Soils and Agronomy Department) in 1988. He continued his research at Rothamsted from 1990–1998 and after, until 2016, he was Honorary Professor of Geography at UCL.

Hertfordshire geology

John’s academic career speaks for itself, as author and co-author of 220 peer reviewed papers and a series of books, Including Hertfordshire Geology and Landscape.  This 2010 publication was a labour of love taken on as co-author and editor in 1975. It is a hugely respected publication setting the standard for books on local geology.

dfgJohn was awarded a DSc in 1981 by Hull University for research into Quaternary Geology and Soil Science and the YGS John Phillips Medal in 2004. He became Fellow of the Geological Society in 1971, a Member of the Institution of Geologists in 1985 and Chartered Geologist in 1991; he served on numerous scientific advisory committees and was elected Vice President of the Geological Society London in 1996. The Society recognised his services to science in 2015 when they awarded him the Distinguished Service Award (pictured right, with Prof. David Manning, President).

Throughout his life John was dedicated to the geology of Hertfordshire, being at times Chairman and Honorary President of Hertfordshire Geological Society (HGS) and a stalwart supporter of Hertfordshire Natural History Society. He became the first Honorary Member of HGS in March, 2017.

His death, in December 2017, followed a persistent lung complaint, which resulted from an infection acquired during an International Quaternary (INQUA) Conference in China. Appropriately, John is buried in the Anglian gravels which rest on top of the Chalk at St. Stephens Church, St. Albans. 

By Haydon Bailey