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John Harry McDonald Whitaker, 1921-2001

'Mac' Whitaker, who died on September 11 2001 aged 80 after a long illness, was an outstanding geologist. Appointed (1951) as the first lecturer in geology at the University of Leicester, he taught all aspects of geology and built up an international reputation for his encyclopaedic knowledge of sedimentary rocks and their structures. He applied methods for the integrated analysis of clastic rocks, notably the oil and gas reservoirs of the North Sea. His expertise was in demand by oil companies who supported his research and endowed awards for imaginative students.

Mac was educated at the Perse School, Cambridge and immediately afterwards started war service with the Cambridge Instrument Company. From 1940-45 he was an Experimental Assistant on nerve gases with the Chemical Inspection Department of the Ministry of Supply. Immediately after WW2, he read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, intending to graduate in chemistry. But, as a keen climber, he became excited by geology and changed direction - winning the Shell and Wilshire Prizes in consecutive years. He graduated in Geology with Mineralogy and Petrology and also completed a London degree with first class Honours. Later he did a PhD at Leicester on The Silurian and Lower Devonian Geology of Ringerike, Norway, where he spent a year on a Scholarship funded by the football pools.

Immediately after graduating Mac was appointed Assistant Lecturer at the University of Manchester - one of a trio of enthusiasts known as The Three Musketeers, with the motto "do it now". The other members of the trio were Donald Griffiths (later Professor of Geophysics, Birmingham University), and Jim Lawson (later Senior Lecturer, Glasgow University) - a founder of the Ludlow Research Group (LRG) of which Mac was secretary for a time. Mac also became a Tutor at Hulme Hall (Manchester).

At the end of this appointment (1951), he became Lecturer in Geology in the Leicester Geography Department. Here he developed courses, set up laboratories and made appointments (including Trevor Ford, Tony Evans and Bob King). By 1954 Geology became an independent department that flourished under Mac's team (and later with Peter Sylvester-Bradley). It became one of the UK’s leading teaching and research departments, of which Mac was a key member until his retirement (1985).

Mac's early researches were in Palaeozoic stratigraphy (especially Silurian and Devonian rocks of the Welsh Borders and S. Norway) and sedimentology - particularly in using primary sedimentary structures as palaeocurrent and environmental indicators. His first LRG contribution was his meticulously detailed map of the Leintwardine area, where exposures are rare but where Mac found nearly 480! Here began his interest in submarine channels. He later described an unusual raised submarine canyon in Japan, where he worked with leading sedimentologist Prof. 'Happy' Okada on the sediments of the Shimanto Belt, developing a continuing interest in trench and fore-arc environments.

Mac was always quick to use the latest techniques in teaching and research. His approach to integrated analysis involved hand-specimen study, thin and polished sections, point counting, cathodoluminescence, XRD, SEM and energy-dispersion analysis. Taken together, they gave the detailed data crucial to assessing possible oil reservoirs. He was an early authority on the Brent Sandstone Formation (North Sea).

Mac served the University of Leicester, its Department of Geology, and the geological and local communities superbly. His energy and enthusiasm were demonstrated by the way he did all the departmental administration and served on innumerable boards and committees as the University grew. He was a cheerful and enthusiastic HoD, a role he often filled again in later years while others were on fieldwork. He was a Council member of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society and a strong promoter (and Chairman) of its Geological Section.

After his retirement, he and Peter Smith initiated and edited Geology Today. A Senior Fellow of the Geological Society, he was also an active member of the British Sedimentological Research Group, for whom he organised meetings at Leicester, and of the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain.

A keen traveller, Mac enjoyed mountaineering and skiing. His other interests included photography, watercolour painting, and the clarinet. He loved music and initiated a long series of popular Friday lunchtime gramophone concerts at which his many friends were cajoled into presenting favourite recordings.

Mac is survived by his wife, Marian (married 1954), their sons Robert and Peter who were regular geological travelling companions, and four grandchildren.

Aftab Khan