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Robert Millner Shackleton, 1909-2001

Robert Shackleton died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of May 3 in his 92nd year at his home in East Hendred, Berkshire, UK - closing one of the finest geological lives of the century.

Born on December 30 1909, Robert was one of the very few truly great field-based geologists, of profound and broad knowledge, talent and enthusiasm. He was a very modern man and used a number of remote-sensing techniques in his research, although he stuck to the traditional methods (field observation, hammer and handlens) to accomplish his goal, namely a detailed understanding of the evolution of the continental crust. This is a lesson of critical importance – yet, seemingly, dying in modern Earth science.

Robert believed that nothing serious could be done without a detailed geological map of the area, region or continent under investigation, constantly holding John Ramsay up as the master of the art. Robert commonly said that “the truth resides in the rocks” and, like Francis Pettijohn: “there is nothing as sobering as an outcrop”. He despised the “quick and dirty” approach of a quick road traverse and the grabbing of a few samples put through a machine without a full understanding of rock relationships in the area, gained by making a detailed geological map.

Robert was not a prolific publisher. Instead he wrote exquisite gems that used meticulous field mapping and observation to solve tectonic and regional geological problems - most notably in the Dalradian rock of the British Isles, Ordovician volcanic rocks in North Wales, the Precambrian rocks of Africa and Europe, the Tertiary rocks of Fiji and the Mesozoic/Cenozoic rocks of Tibet. Others and I were fortunate to spend several months in Tibet with Robert in 1985 where he drove us to long days of field observation and thinking. At the age of 75, Robert was always the first out and the last back.

Robert was privileged as a student to have attended the International Geological Congress in South Africa, travelling out and back on Union Castle ships. This ignited his love of Africa, its geology and its people, and led to his work as a geologist with the Colonial Survey during WWII and his appointment as Director of the Research Institute of African Geology in Leeds University (1963). He held other appointments as Assistant to Senior Lecturer in Imperial College, London; short-term appointments in Cairo, Khartoum, Accra, Addis Ababa and then the George Herdman Chair (Liverpool University, 1948-63). On “retirement” (1975) he was appointed Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the Open University.

On a personal level, Robert was a loyal and kind friend of intensely deep ethics and integrity and was admired and loved by all his friends and family. He was a man of simple tastes and pleasures (especially loving his garden) and was strangely shy, modest and self-effacing - without a trace of pomposity or self-aggrandisement. Robert was a soft, gentle, totally non-materialistic man who got on with everyone - as witnessed by the happy relationships among his successive wives Gwen, Judith and Peigi and children Annabel, Nicholas, Penny, Chloe and Jason.

In spite of failing eyesight, Robert was a very fit man. We all believed that he was indestructible (or at least non-geodegradable!) and would last forever - as witnessed by his failed vault across a charging rhinoceros, and a later dive from a pier in Connemara when the tide was out. I find it quite hard to accept that Robert is no longer with us and, with others, deeply mourn his passing as a dear friend and great geologist.

John Dewey