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Norman Edward Butcher 1928-2017

Geologist who studied Skaergaard under Lawrence Wager but who later became a leading student of the life and times of James Hutton

fuio ‘A pseudo-Scot of Cornish ancestry, brought up in Kent, but with strong Yorkshire affiliations’ is how Norman once described himself.  Born in Chichester, he grew up in Folkestone and later Maidstone, where he attended the Grammar School.  There, under Spitfire skies, he received a secure grounding in science.  National Service saw him in Germany as a sergeant with the Royal Army Educational Corps, and, demobbed, he entered Sheffield University in 1948 to read chemistry. 

A subsidiary subject was demanded of him and he chose geology.  It was a life-shaping decision.  The stratigraphic column supplanted the periodic table, and at the close of his first year he transferred into the honours course in geology.  He was President of the University Geological Society (1951-52) and in 1952 was awarded a first class BSc in Geology.


For two years he remained in Sheffield to investigate the western side of the Dartmoor Granite, and then in 1954 migrated to Queen’s College, Oxford, as Hastings Senior Scholar.  Under Professor Lawrence Wager, he studied clinopyroxenes of the upper part of the Skaergaard Intrusion in East Greenland - a region he actually visited in 2001 when he travelled with a Russian expedition.  He developed a deep affection for Queen’s College and in 1955 the College Chaplain (David Jenkins) officiated when Norman married Margaret Nutter who had been the first woman honours student of geology in Sheffield.  Margaret and their three sons survive Norman.


In 1965 he joined the staff of the Department of Geology in the University of Reading.  There he remained until 1969, but they were years of increasing friction.  In 1970 he was happy to transfer his family to Edinburgh upon his appointment as Staff Tutor in Earth Sciences within the Open University.  His responsibilities extended throughout Scotland and brought him into contact with hundreds of enthusiastic students of his science.  It was work which Norman relished and he remained with the OU until his retirement in 1992.  During 1983-85 he was President of the Edinburgh Geological Society.

Geological Society

Norman was elected FGS in 1951 and only rarely did a visit to London fail to bring him to Burlington House.   During his Reading years he interested himself in the possibility of establishing a professional body to serve the needs of British geology and he convened a meeting to explore the matter.  It took place in the Society’s Council Room on 6 January 1964, but proved premature.  Later, after the foundation of the Institute of Geologists in 1977, Norman greatly valued his post-nominal CGeol, and he also liked to advertise his Membership of the Royal Institution by means of an MRI.

History of Geology

Norman was fascinated by the history of geology.  In 1967 he organised in Reading University Library an exhibition illustrating the evolution of geological cartography, and after moving to Edinburgh he became a leading student of the life and times of James Hutton.  It was his initiative which gave to Edinburgh the Hutton Memorial Garden, inaugurated in August 1997 upon the site of Hutton’s former residence in St John’s Hill.

By Gordon Herries Davies