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Brian Keith Holdsworth, 1936 – 2007

Brian Holdsworth – BK to colleagues and students, died on 5 August 2007 after a long battle against cancer. He was a distinguished stratigrapher, internationally acknowledged for his innovative and influential researches in radiolarian biostratigraphy, and a highly regarded teacher.

BK was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1936. He attended Wolstanton County Grammar School where his father, an accomplished botanist, was Head of Biology. Except for some notable forays, Brian spent most of his life in and around North Staffordshire but it would be difficult to find anyone less parochial or more eclectic in their interests – scientific and cultural.

Brian entered University College, Oxford as an Exhibitioner in 1956 and graduated in geology in1959. He was a major contributor to Isis, the student news-magazine, honing journalistic skills that served him well in later life. His geological originality was demonstrated during his Finals mapping project when he identified then new-fangled turbidites in the manifestly non-geosynclinal setting of the North Staffordshire Basin. Through Wolverson Cope, Head of Geology at the nascent Keele University, BK undertook research for his PhD on the Namurian of the South Pennines that unravelled the stratigraphy and complex provenance of the basinal deposits. More significantly, he discovered well-preserved radiolaria in calcareous "bullions", establishing the focus for nearly 40 years' research.

He was appointed Demonstrator at Keele in 1963, then successively Assistant Lecturer (1965), Lecturer (1966) and Senior Lecturer (1973). Deteriorating health and disenchantment with the changing ethos of British higher education led him to take early retirement in 1993.

Brian demonstrated the biostratigraphic potential of radiolaria in the British Carboniferous (and more widely) in a series of influential publications -- including a paper on the oldest known radiolaria jointly authored with the current President of this Society, Richard Fortey. However, it was his participation in a Leg of the Deep Sea Drilling Project in the SW Pacific (1973) that alerted the wider geological community to his radiolarian expertise and led to very fruitful research collaboration over following decades with US and Canadian geologists working in Alaska and the Cordillera of western North America.

Brian and his collaborators developed acid-leaching techniques to extract delicate and exquisitely preserved radiolaria from Palaeozoic and Mesozoic cherts and he won worldwide recognition as a skilled exponent of this arcane art. This approach produced a broadly applicable radiolarian zonation for the later Palaeozoic and facilitated accurate dating of hitherto poorly constrained rock sequences. One important result was the recognition of discrete continental blocks in the Cordilleran collage that had been juxtaposed by very large-scale fault-movements – forming the ‘suspect terrains’ of modern jargon. In 1980 BK documented arguably the first application of this concept to British geology, suggesting in a book review that Anglesey was a Palaeozoic ‘suspect terrain’.

BK was a dedicated and effective teacher whose attention to detail and clarity of delivery were legendary. The British Micropalaeontologist panegyric on his retirement recounts how his undergraduate courses in micropalaeontology enthused many students to pursue postgraduate studies in this topic. Eschewing modern technology, Brian spent hours before lectures preparing blackboards full of meticulous chalk drawings in order, as he put it, “to give the kids the latest ‘gen’“. His end-of-fieldtrip syntheses were exemplary in their lucidity and scope, with students hanging on every word – and betting on the length of ash he could sustain on a cigarette!

BK was fundamentally an old-school naturalist with interests ranging far beyond geology. Over many years he meticulously recorded the butterflies and moths visiting his garden. His home was at the junction of Shropshire, Staffordshire and Cheshire, and he thus contributed important lepidopteran records to the archives of three counties. Over recent years Brian devoted much thought and effort to creating a woodland garden at his home that attests to his botanical skills. He also greatly appreciated the visual arts, organising exhibitions at Keele for some years and championing the work of his brother-in-law, the painter Douglas Swan.

The intellectual rigour, perfectionism and acerbic wit that underpinned Brian’s research and teaching also engendered wariness, even trepidation, in some - although good students always found in him a ready ear and wise counsel. Those who penetrated his rather daunting carapace delighted in his wide knowledge, humanity and deep insights into the worlds of science and the mind.

He will be greatly missed by his wife, Sheila, son Douglas, daughter Clare and grand-daughter Amy and by his many friends across the wider community.

Gilbert Kelling, with thanks to John Collinson, David Emley, Colin Exley, Tony Phillips and Hugh Torrens