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John Alfred Catt 1939 2017

John Catt was upright, modest and a gentleman, in every sense of the word and he is deeply missed by all his wife Diana, his family, colleagues and friends. John was born in Kent on April 10th, 1939 the son of a gardener who worked at the local Church of England 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.

John was educated through Ashford Grammar School and, in November, 1956 he made the arduous train journey northwards to be interviewed by Lewis Penny, then Head of the Geology Department at the University of Hull. He was immediately offered a place to read for a joint degree in geology and chemistry at this flourishing department. 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 a 2.1 degree which gave him access to a doctoral scholarship to study the Quaternary of East Yorkshire.

The next three years were, according to John, “the happiest and most stimulating of my life.” He completed his thesis within the requisite three years of his grant in 1963 and immediately took up the position of Scientific Officer, in the Pedology Department at Rothamsted Experimental Station, Harpenden, Hertfordshire. He stayed at Rothamsted effectively for the rest of his professional career, rapidly progressing to Principal Scientific Officer in the Soils and Plant Nutrition Department by 1977 and becoming Deputy Head of Rothamsted (Acting Head of Soils and Agronomy Department) in 1988. He continued his research into soil erosion and the leaching of nitrates, phosphorus and pesticides in clay soils at Rothamsted from 1990 – 1998 and after this, until 2016, as Honorary Professor of Geography at University College London.

John’s academic career speaks for itself, as author and co-author of almost 200 peer reviewed papers plus a series of books, including “Soils and Quaternary Geology”, “Soil Management: Problems and Solutions” (with M. A. Fullen) and, last but by no means least, “Hertfordshire Geology and Landscape”.  This major publication (published 2010) was a labour of love which John had taken on as co-author and editor from the late Percy Evans in 1975. It is a hugely respected publication which sets the standard for books on local and regional geology. In addition, he supervised 14 PhD students during his career and provided supervision for a further ten visiting scientists during their time at Rothamsted.

John was awarded a DSc in 1981 by the University of Hull for his research into Quaternary Geology and Soil Science and he was awarded the prestigious John Phillips Medal by the Yorkshire Geological Society in 2004 recognizing his contribution to Pleistocene and Quaternary Geology in the region. He served as both Secretary and Vice President of the Quaternary Research Association and was President of the Palaeopedology Working Group of the International Soil Science Society. 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.

His research into palaeopedology, stratigraphy and the palaeoclimatic interpretation of Quaternary palaeosols led to him being appointed as Visiting Professor of Geography at Birkbeck College London (1988 – 1998), Visiting Professor of Soil Science at the Agricultural University of Prague (1993 – 1999) and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Earth and Atmosphere Sciences, University of Reading (1995 – 1999). John was the most modest of men, and colleagues and family were often unaware of his distinguished academic career, frequently remarking that “he kept his light under a bushel”.

Throughout his life in Hertfordshire John was dedicated to the geology of the county, being at times Chairman and Honorary President of the Hertfordshire Geological Society (HGS) and a stalwart member of the Hertfordshire Natural History Society who gave him their highest award in 2013. He was made the first Honorary Member of Hertfordshire Geological Society 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 in 1991. Appropriately, John is buried in the Anglian gravels which rest on top of the Chalk at St. Stephens Church, St. Albans.     

Haydon Bailey