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David Bleackley, 1919-2002

David Bleackley was born 1 February 1919 in Oxford and died on 18 June 2002 at his home, Well Farm, near Berkhamsted. He retired as Head of the Overseas Division of the British Geological Survey (BGS) in 1980.

He graduated from Oxford with Honours in geology in 1939. He then joined the Militia ("black beret, blazer and grey flannels") until the War started when – with military logic – he was drafted to Chemical Warfare ("with First World War equipment").

Tiring of the ineffectual tedium, David sought a more active role and transferred to bomb disposal. Much of his wartime career was spent disarming unexploded bombs that fell in the Blitz – a period which, ironically, like many of his contemporaries he referred to as "six wasted years".

The geological aspect of his occupation was a daily encounter with the London Clay, which underlies much of that city, providing a resilient medium for the bombs that failed to explode. Asked how many of these operations he had carried out he replied: "Oh, hundreds – but there must be scores left". One wonders to what extent David’s characteristic cheerful calm and optimistic demeanour – maintained until his death from lung cancer – was honed by this experience.

He joined Shell in Venezuela in 1945 and his interest in South America continued for the rest of his career. In the Geological Survey of Guyana (from 1954) he investigated the vast bauxite deposits, later developing this research into a DPhil and writing the definitive memoir on this important economic mineral deposit.

This was the era of de-colonisation and he worked with political leaders such as Cheddi Jaygan, and answered to Janet Jaygan, Cheddi’s (Communist) wife, a highly competent Minister of Natural Resources.

David returned to the UK (1961) to form the nucleus of "Special Surveys" - a unit within Overseas Geological Surveys (OGS, London), an organisation strong on laboratory services, but lacking the facility to mount field surveys. Independence had stripped many former colonial institutions of their expatriate professionals, who had previously provided most of their scientific services. David’s role was now to help post-colonial Britain discharge former colonial obligations and shift away from colony-based to London-based institutions until these had been rebuilt in the newly independent states.

David’s arrival in OGS began a 20-year worldwide expansion of "technical assistance", home-based in London. His projects started small: in Aden (1962) and in Basutoland (1963). David Workman recalls the two of them at this time, sharing a tent at 10,000 feet in the worst African snows of the Century, on a diet of sardines and Oudemeister brandy - David taking such difficulties in his stride and exuding his characteristic aura of unflappability.

David’s progress continued, now in independent states such as Thailand (as part of the UN Mekong Project). Largely on David’s initiative more ambitious projects were conceived. In Bolivia (Project Precambrico), an area about the size of Great Britain with only a few dirt roads, was taken on. This project, involving some 10 Spanish-speaking geologists, continued for eight years through five military coups and the Falklands War, producing extensive geological map coverage of the country.

In the North Sumatra Project (Indonesia, 1975), a team of British geologists explored an area about the size of England and Wales. Working in harness with Indonesians marked a shift of emphasis towards training indigenous professionals and reinforcing local institutions. It also laid the groundwork for the extractive industries’ current understanding of Sumatra’s resources.

In an organisation as elaborate as BGS it is not easy to assess the importance of one individual. But it is clear that modern technical assistance to developing countries owes much to Bleackley’s innovative professional skills and tenacity of vision.

David was a tall, good-looking man with great presence; courteous and attentive, a very agreeable field companion, with an urbanity not usually associated with the "field man". Everyone recalls his tremendous capacity to enjoy life. He was "an excellent man at an embassy party" (to which overseas visits frequently took him). He had the ability and integrity to work with ministers of state in new countries, with their British diplomatic counterparts, and with the administration in London.

David was appointed Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George in 1980. He is survived by his wife Pat and a son and daughter by his first marriage.

John Hepworth