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Ian Morven Simpson (1922-2018)

A gifted teacher and gentle intellectual giant with expertise in the Carboniferous of Northern England

Morven SimpsonDr Ian Morven Simpson FGS, known to all as Morven, was born in Edinburgh in 1922, son of Dr John Baird Simpson, District Geologist in the Geological Survey in Scotland1. Morven’s early education was based in Edinburgh, at George Heriot’s School and as an undergraduate student in Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. His undergraduate career was interrupted by World War II, and when he resumed after the war, he switched to studying Geology. He graduated top of his class, with first class honours, but usually added, with a twinkle in his eye, that there were only 4 geology students in his year, and two of those spoke very little English. Nevertheless, it was a good enough result to get him an appointment at the University of Glasgow as an assistant lecturer in Geology, and as a PhD student with Prof T.N. George, working on the Carboniferous Limestones of Ireland. In 1951 Morven completed his PhD and secured a position in the Geology Department at the University of Manchester, where he spent the rest of his working life.

He quickly gained an enviable reputation as a teacher, in the lecture theatre, laboratory and in the field, and started what turned into a lifetime research partnership, and deep friendship, with Dr Fred Broadhurst. Together they published many papers on the Carboniferous of Northern England, both clastics and carbonates, usually managing one day a week in the field, notably in and around Castleton, in the Peak District.

Morven was a gifted teacher, and one who became a role model to many who themselves went on to teach. To any student with a reasonable geological question, spontaneous or prepared, his default response was “Well now, what do you think?”. Delivered reassuringly with his gentle, educated Scots accent this was a pedagogic masterstroke.  For those with Morven’s modesty, the response avoided the temptation to showcase his own knowledge and instead opened the door to the greatest educational treasure-house of all—getting the student to think, analyse, articulate and discuss.  It was an immediate conversation-starter where the knowledgeable one became tutor rather than expert, and it would reassure the student that this was no waste of his time. In the field it was a priceless gambit.  In a group it could spark a collaborative response where others would crowd around … goodies were being given out and here was stuff for notebooks. There was always a story of some sort contrived and delivered by this gentle intellectual giant.

Morven retired in 1983, but he continued teaching extra-mural classes and writing geological guides. His last appearance in public was at the Geological Society, at Burlington House, in 2013, when he handed back to the Society, for safe keeping, the Lyell Medal that his father had been awarded in 1954 (see footnote 1). He died on November 19, 2018, six years after losing his wife of 65 years, Janette. He is survived by his son, Graeme, also a geologist, daughter Jennifer, five grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

By Graeme Simpson, with contributions from Dr John Pollard and Prof Gordon Walkden