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Skaergaard, Everest and more...

Lawrence Wager

Geoff Glasby* on the life and work of Lawrence Wager

Geoscientist 17.12 December 2007

In May 1965, I decided to do my Part II thesis in chemistry at Oxford in the Geology Department. My tutor (L.E. Sutton) arranged for me to meet Malcolm Brown to discuss my topic. When we had finished, he took me to see the professor to confirm the arrangements. I was introduced to a short man (5 ft 4 1/2 ins) with receding white hair who looked older than his 61 years but had a very erect posture and an athletic frame. When we shook hands, he squeezed my hand in a powerful grip. I knew immediately that I had met a somebody. As we left, I asked Malcolm Brown who that was. ‘That was Professor Wager. He was highest up Everest before the war’.

Lawrence Wager (“Bill” to his friends) was one of the greatest geologists of his time. He had the supreme good fortune to discover the Skaergaard Intrusion and realize its significance immediately. Skaergaard was the dominant theme of the next 34 years of his life, leading to the classic work with W.A. (Alex) Deer (Wager and Deer 1939) and culminating in the posthumous publication of his book ‘Layered Igneous Rocks’ with his protégé, Malcolm Brown (Wager and Brown, 1968). Wager is also remembered as an outstanding field geologist and teacher, the man who revitalised the Oxford Geology Department after the war and a cofounder of two major international scientific journals. However, it is for his work on the Skaergaard Intrusion that he is mainly remembered today.

Quite apart from his geological achievements, Wager was also a formidable explorer and mountaineer. As an explorer, Wager had the necessary ingredients for success: mental toughness and courage, meticulous planning, careful selection of targets and reliable implementation, assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of colleagues and publication of the results. As ‘highest up Everest before the war’, he was one the top climbers in Britain. He was thwarted in his attempt on Everest in 1933 by the famous ‘second step’ at 28,100 ft which he described as unclimbable. Here I summarise Wager’s remarkable career as a geologist, explorer and mountaineer which I have described in greater detail elsewhere (Glasby 2007).

Early days

Lawrence Rickard Wager was born in Batley in West Yorkshire in 1904 followed by his brother Hal, in 1906. His father was headmaster of Hebden Bridge Secondary School from 1905. The boys spent the school holidays at a rented cottage at Arncliffe in Littondale in the Yorkshire Dales each year. Lawrence searched out fossils and minerals from the local lead mines and later became interested in the Carboniferous Limestone. Hal, on the other hand, was more interested in plants and algae. Freedom to roam in some of the most beautiful country in Britain had a profound influence on both boys.

In 1922, Lawrence went up to Pembroke College Cambridge to read geology at a time when the subject was very strong there. John Marr was Woodwardian Professor, Alfred Harker Reader in Petrology and Gertrude Elles and Cecil Tilley members of the teaching staf. In 1926, he obtained a First in Geology in Part II of the Natural Science Tripos. His main outside interest was the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club; the meets in the vacations became an integral part of his life.

Wager was then awarded a Goldsmiths’ Company Research Studentship which he used to work on metasomatism in the Whin Sill and on the joint patterns of the Great Scar Limestone of the Craven area of Yorkshire. During this time, he took up Morris dancing and became a member of the Cambridge Morris Men in 1928. It was here that he acquired the name Bill and it was through Morris dancing that he met his wife, Phyllis, whom he married in 1934. In 1929, Wager took up a lectureship in Mineralogy and Petrology at Reading University under Professor H.L. Hawkins. By this time, Wager was beginning to establish his credentials as a field geologist and had a reputation as one of the best and safest climbers in Britain.


In January 1930 soon after moving to Reading, Wager was invited by Gino Watkins to join the 1930-1 British Arctic Air Route Expedition to Greenland. This was the first of four expeditions to East Greenland and one to Everest in which Wager was involved in the 1930s. In all, Wager was absent for about five of the ten years he was at Reading. It was far sighted of Professor Hawkins to support Wager’s long periods of unpaid leave for these expeditions, because they formed the basis for Wager’s subsequent research.

Early in the expedition, Wager identified and named the Skaergaard Intrusion after the peninsula at the mouth of the Kangerdlugssuaq Fjord. Deer (1967) wrote: “other geologists would have recognized the presence of the plutonic centres in the area, some would have realised their unique interest but it is doubtful if any other British geologist of the period would have had the necessary toughness, persistence and scientific insight to exploit the discovery to the extent that Wager did”. Brooks (1985) considered that the recognition the importance of the Skaergaard Intrusion at that stage was ‘a stroke of genius.’

On the Greenland expeditions, Wager proved himself an able organiser as well as a remarkable mapper. On the first BAARE expedition, for example, Wager participated in the second relief of the Ice Cap Station at the highest point on the Ice Cap, involving a 250-mile return sledge journey in extremely bad conditions; it took 39 days just to reach the station. Wager also took part in an attempt to climb Mount Forel, the highest known peak in the Arctic at that time (11,500 feet), involving a 360-mile return journey. The party turned back about 700 ft below the summit, opting instead to spend the time surveying the surrounding country. Nonetheless, it was the highest climb in the Arctic to that date.

Wager also played a major role in organizing and leading and organising later expeditions involving larger geological parties such as the 1935-1936 British East Greenland Expedition which involved W.A. (Alex) Deer who was a Ph.D. student at Cambridge, Wager’s wife Phyl, and Hal Wager and his wife Kit, overwintering in Greenland. The first task in Angmagsalik was to select the eskimos who would go to Kangerdlugssuaq with them. They eventually chose two families plus a strong willing girl, known as ‘the horse’ - making 14 in all. The Wagers wanted contact and friendship with eskimo families who knew about living conditions and travelling in Greenland. The relationship appears to have been very successful and friendly.

The geological programme had two principal objectives: the detailed mapping of the Skaergaard Intrusion and the mapping of as much of the area to the east of Kangerdlugssuaq as reasonable. The field programme was undertaken principally by Wager, Alex Deer, Dr E.C. Fountaine and Wager’s brother Hal in two-man teams. Wager kept up the pressure on fieldwork throughout the autumn and even in December. Scientific work was also undertaken at base in winter during bad weather, including making thin sections, microscope work, mineral separation and collating field data. In all, 35,000 km2 of difficult country were geologically mapped, some areas in great detail - a remarkable achievement. It is clear that Wager was a bit of a slave-driver, but he also succeeded in passing his enthusiasm on to others.

The results of Wager’s four expeditions to East Greenland during the 1930s were published in four volumes of Meddelelser om Grønland. Many judged Wager and Deer’s 1939 account of the Skaergaard Intrusion to be the most significant single contribution yet made to the science of petrology. In the field, Wager had the rare gift of inspiring blind faith, due to his deep understanding of the factors controlling the spirit and stamina of his party, the cautious commonsense that governed all his decisions, and his insistence upon detailed organization. E.A. (David) Vincent considered Wager to be one of the toughest, most single-minded explorers that Britain has ever produced.
Wyn Harris and Wager leaving Camp VI for Camp V on May 30, 1933, after the first assault on Everest (Ruttledge 1934).


Late in 1932, Wager was invited to join the 1933 Everest Expedition as a last-minute replacement for Noel Odell. Wager, Hugh Ruttledge, the expedition leader, Jack Longland and Percy Wyn-Harris arrived at Darjeeling on February 17 and began the long trek to Everest, climbing up to 14,900 ft at the Tibet boundary. Wager arrived at Base Camp with the ‘hill trots’ and needed a week to recover. On May 29, Wager, Wyn-Harris and Longland with eight porters reached Camp VI and on May 30, Wager and Wyn-Harris made the first assault on the summit.

They reached about 28,100 ft, approximately the same point as Norton and Summerville had reached in 1924 but were blocked by the ‘second step’ which Wager considered unclimbable. Nonetheless, this was the highest on Everest without oxygen until Reinhold Messner and Peter Habeler made their successful ascent in 1978. Wager and Wyn-Harris then returned to Camp VI, where the second summit party consisting of Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton was waiting. They ascended to the same point but did not get any higher. During their descent, Wager forced himself up to the NE shoulder of the mountain, becoming the only climber to have looked down on the SE face of Everest until Hillary and Tenzing did so 20 years later. When Dr McLean, the expedition Medical Officer, examined Wager and Wyn-Harris in the camp, he found both had dilated hearts.

When Wager arrived home, he was obliged to lecture around the country to raise money for the Mount Everest Committee as well as to continue with his teaching and research at Reading. When he had arrived at Reading, the Geology Department only had two rooms called ‘The Hut’ but they moved into new labs in 1931. Wager was not a natural lecturer but he managed to fascinate the students with petrology all the same. However, immediately after his lectures, he would stalk back to his room on the hour, bang the door shut and get on with the Skaergaard struggle. He was at his best with students in the field, unravelling geological problems before their eyes.

The Wagers spent July 1938 in Norway and took the opportunity to visit V.M. Goldschmidt at his home. This was to be the only meeting between Wager and Goldschmidt, although they corresponded later and Wager’s group at Oxford subsequently devoted considerable effort to testing the validity of the Goldschmidt Rules based on geochemical data from the Skaergaard rocks.

In March 1940, Michael Spender visited Wager in Reading to discuss a photogrammetric machine he had imported to England for interpreting air photographs. Wager knew Spender from the Mikkelsen Expedition to East Greenland in 1932 where Spender had made a fine map of 1,000 sq miles of Kangerdlugssuaq using stereo-photogrammetric surveying. In May, Wager was persuaded to join the Photographic Interpretation Unit of the Air Ministry as a civilian. He was commissioned into the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve (RAFVR) in August and in 1942 volunteered to lead a small photographic interpretation unit to Murmansk to trace the key German ship the Tirpitz. While in Murmansk, the Tirpitz was found with the aid of their three long-range reconnaissance Spitfires and they were ordered home, much to Wager’s relief. The Tirpitz was eventually sunk in November, 1944, off Tromsø in Norway. Wager had survived the notorious Murmansk run and was Mentioned in Despatches.

In 1943, Wager was appointed to succeed Arthur Holmes as Professor at Durham but was only released from the RAFVR after Lord Eustace Percy, the Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University, wrote to his friend, Sir Archibad Sinclair, the secretary of State for Air. At Durham, Wager helped found Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta (Shaw 2003), the first volume of which carried his classic paper on the geochemistry of the Skaergaard intrusion with Robert Mitchell. Wager remained an editor of GCA until his death.

In the austerity of post-war Britain, research in Greenland was out of the question. Accepting the Society’s Bigsby Medal in 1945, Wager said that reconnaissance work in distant places had to be replaced by work of the same exactitude nearer to home. Thus began his work with Fred Stewart, David Vincent, Malcolm Brown and David Bell on the British Tertiary Igneous Province. A year later Wager was made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Wager’s election to the Oxford Chair of Geology was announced on 6 April 1950. In going to Oxford, Wager was taking over a moribund department and set about creating a modern, world-class geology department by broadening the teaching staff and, over the years, attracting the likes of Louis Ahrens, Ross Taylor, David Vincent, Malcolm Brown, Richard Lambert, Harold Reading. Ron Oxburgh, David Bell and Jack Zussman among others. By the late 1950s, Wager had managed to re-establish the Department of Geology and Mineralogy and had imbued the department with a determined and enthusiastic research spirit.

Wager himself focused on new methods of chemical analysis as pioneered by V.M. Goldschmidt. X-ray fluoresence spectrography became important during this period and was used for analysing Skaergaard samples. In addition, Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis (INAA) was being developed by Albert Smales and his Analytical Chemistry Group at Harwell and was extensively used at Oxford. This approach led to the investigation of more elements in Skaergaard material. The joint studies with Harwell culminated in the publication of Methods in Geochemistry by Smales and Wager in 1960.

Letter from V.M. Goldschmidt congratulating Wager of his appointment to the Professorship at Durham in 1944 (Goldschmidt 1944). Wager also became very interested in geological age determination following his contacts with Arthur Holmes and Fritz Paneth in Durham and later with Louis Ahrens in Oxford. In 1957, the department acquired a spark source mass spectrometer and Stephen Moorbath was appointed as the first British Petroleum Research Fellow to run it. Over the next decade, the isotope geochemistry laboratory expanded rapidly. The first provisional radiometric ages from Kangerdlugssuaq and Angmagsalik were published by Wager and Hamilton (1964).

In 1953, Wager returned to Kangerdlugssuaq for a summer expedition with a combined Oxford and Manchester Universities party and returned with more samples, enabling David Vincent and Malcolm Brown to begin a second phase of investigations. Based on material from this expedition, Wager et al. (1957) were able to formulate the concept of sulphide immiscibility in the Skaergaard Intrusion. There was no doubt in the minds of his juniors that Wager’s remarkable powers of leadership were a significant element in the expedition’s success, members being stretched to their limits but never dangerously beyond them.

In 1955, coming back from an undergraduate field trip to the Lake District at Easter, Wager felt pain in his left arm and side - he had suffered a heart attack. He was told to be careful for the rest of his life, never to walk up hills, and never to dig the garden. Next summer, Wager again visited his students in Skye but did not undertake any hard walking.

In 1958, Wager was also involved in discussions with Thomas Barth, Cecil Tilley and Paul Rosbaud about a new journal of petrology. Despite initial setbacks, the first volume of the Journal of Petrology was published in 1960 with Wager on the editorial board, another position he held until his death.

By 1957, Wager and Brown had begun discussing the possibility of writing a book about layered igneous rocks. Writing it was to be a huge task. In order to prepare themselves, they visited the Bushveld complex in South Africa and the Great Dyke of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in 1958. Wager took the only sabbatical of his academic career from March 1959 and spent six months in the Rhône valley to immerse himself in writing. He also visited volcanoes in Italy and the West Indies and returned to Oxford refreshed in January 1960.

Wager planned to return to Greenland and, in 1965, he and Alex Deer obtained full financial support from the Natural Environmental Research Council for a major expedition including drilling the intrusion. However, on 20 November 1965, while in London with Phyl he suffered a second coronary and died almost immediately. Wager’s ashes were scattered in Littondale, his home in the Yorkshire Dales. The great book with Brown, unfinished at his death, was finally published in 1968 and sold well, becoming a standard text. The 1966 expedition took place as planned, led by Alex Deer and a memorial plaque to Professor Wager was erected on the highest point of Skaergaardshalvö; however the cores they drilled during this expedition were never fully examined. The quadrennial IAVCEI Wager Prize was created at the instigation of David Vincent and the first awarded in 1973, and replaced by the Wager Medal in 1994.

In my opinion, Wager’s achievements in East Greenland and on Everest in the 1930s rank this modest man in the top half dozen British explorers of the 20th Century, alongside Scott, Shackleton, Fuchs and Fiennes. In addition, his classic work on the Skaergaard Intrusion has stood the test of time. Wager, with his shrewd, tenacious mind, was totally dedicated in all he did, and an outstanding geologist. That’s all there is to it.


I am indebted to Sue Bowler for her editorial input, Wendy Cawthorne for searching out rare books and Professor K-H Wedepohl for his critical comments.


In 2006, members of the Oxford University Greenland Expedition explored and climbed in an area north of the Watkins Mountains in East Greenland. Three undergraduates made 12 ascents of unclimbed peaks and travelled 90 km through largely unexplored terrain. Their first climb involved a 28 hour ascent of a 2613 m peak near the Gronau Nuntatakker which involved steep ice, an interesting bergschrund and an unplanned bivvy just below the summit (Engel 2006). This expedition was undertaken in the tradition of Lawrence Wager and his companions in the 1930s.

Related reading

  1. Anon 1965. Obituary Prof. L.R. Wager Geologist and Mountaineer. The Times November 22, p. 12.
  2. Anon 1966. Obituary Notice PROFESSOR L.R. WAGER, an Editor of the Journal of Petrology, died suddenly in London on 20 November 1965. J Petrol. 7(1) i.
  3. Brooks, C.K. 1985. L.R. Wager and the geology of East Greenland. Geol Soc Am Centennial Spec. Issue Vol. 1, 237-250.
  4. Brooks, K. 2005. The Skaergaard Intrusion; from icon to precious metal deposit. Geology today. 21 (6), 218-221.
  5. Brown, G.M. 1966. OBITUARY Prof. L.R. Wager. Nature 210, 675-676.
  6. Deer, W.A. 1967. Laurence Rickard Wager 1904-1965. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 13, pp. 358-385.
  7. Engel, H. 2006. Oxford University Greenland Expedition 2006. Oxford Today 19 (2), 57.
  8. Glasby, G.P. 2007. L.R. Wager: Explorer, Mountaineer, Geologist. The Geochemical News 131, 6 pp.
  9. Hargreaves, J. 1991. L. R. Wager: A Life 1904-1965. The Author, Oxford. 141 pp.
  10. Ruttledge, H. 1934. THE MOUNT EVEREST EXPEDITION, 1933: A Paper read at the Afternoon and Evening Meetings of the Society on 6 November 1933 and repeated on the evening of November 1933. The Geographical Journal LXXXIII, 1-17.
  11. Ruttledge, H. 1937. Everest: The Unfinished Adventure. Hodder & Stoughton, London. 63 plates + 2 fold. maps. 288 pp.
  12. Shaw, D. 2003. The beginnings of Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. The Geochemical News No 114, pp. 20-22.
  13. Shipton, E.E. 1945. OBITUARY Michael Spender. The Geographical Journal CVI, 238-239.
  14. Smales, A.A. and Wager, L.R. (eds) 1960. Methods in Geochemistry. Interscience Publishers Ltd, London. 464 pp.
  15. Vincent, E.A. 1994. Geology and Mineralogy at Oxford 1860-1986 History and Reminiscence. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford. 245 pp.
  16. Vincent, E.A. 1998. Sir George Malcolm Brown 5 October 1925-27 March 1997. Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society 44, pp. 63-76.
  17. Wager, L.R. 1934. Geological investigations in East Greenland Part I General geology from Angmagsalik to Kap Dalton The British Arctic Air Route Expedition 1930-1931: Leader H.G. Watkins and The Scoresby Sound Committee’s 2ND East Greenland Expedition in 1932 to King Christian IX’s Land Leader: E Mikkelsen. Medd. om Grønland, 105 (2), 1-46 + 12 plates.
  18. Wager, L.R. 1935. Geological investigations in East Greenland Part II: Geology of Kap Dalton The Scoresby Sound Committee’s 2ND East Greenland Expedition in 1932 to King Christian IX’s Land Leader: E Mikkelsen. Medd. om Grønland, 105 (3), 1-32 + 7 plates.
  19. Wager, L.R. 1947. Geological investigations in East Greenland Part IV: The stratigraphy and tectonics of Knud Rasmussen Land and the Kangerdlugssuaq Region The Scoresby Sound Committee’s 2ND East Greenland Expedition in 1932 to King Christian IX’s Land Leader: E Mikkelsen Plus The British East Greenland Expedition 1935-1936 Leader: L.R. Wager. Medd. om Grønland, 105 (3), 1-32 + 7 plates.
  20. Wager, L.R. and Brown, G.M. 1968. Layered Igneous Intrusions. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh & London, 588 pp.
  21. Wager, L.R. and Deer, W.A. 1939. Geological investigations in East Greenland Part III. The petrology of the Skaergaard Intrusion, Kangerdlugssuaq, East Greenland The Scoresby Sound Committee’s 2ND East Greenland Expedition in 1932 to King Christian IX’s Land Leader: E Mikkelsen Plus The British East Greenland Expedition 1935-1936 Leader: L.R. Wager. Medd. om Grønland, 105 (4), 346 + 27 plates + One map.
  22. Wager, L.R. and Hamilton, E.I. 1964. Some radiometric rock ages and the problem of the southward continuation of the East Greenland Caledonian orogeny. Nature 204, 1079
  23. Wager, L.R. and Mitchell, R.L. 1951. The distribution of trace elements during strong fractionation of magma-further study of the Skaergaard intrusion, East Greenland. Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta 1, 129-208.
  24. Wager, L.R., Vincent, E.A. and Smales, A.A 1957. Sulfides in the Skaergaard intrusion, East Greenland. Econ. Geol. 52, 855-903.
  25. Watkins, H.G. 1932. THE BRITISH ARCTIC AIR ROUTE EXPEDITION: A Paper read at a Special Evening Meeting of the Society on 12 December 1931. The Geographical Journal LXXIX, 353-367.
*Dr G P Glasby, Dept. of Geochemistry, GZG, Goldschmidtstr. 1, University of Göttingen, Germany: [email protected]