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Donald Griffiths, 1919-2007

Donald Harrison Griffiths was born on 20 Sept 1919 in Manchester into a family with a great love of chamber music, literature and the countryside and developed interests in climbing, skiing and geology. He died on 8 Oct 2007.

He was educated at William Hulme Grammar School, Manchester and was admitted to read geology at the University of Manchester in 1938. He was a Conscientious Objector during the War, which interrupted his university studies, and in which he worked at the North Mosley pit in Lancashire. It was an experience which was to prove useful in later years in the famous ‘mine experiment’ in 1950 which required measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field in a mine and on the surface above to see if the gradient was consistent with the ideas of the Professor of Physics, Nobel Laureate PMS Blackett, on the origin of the field. He graduated in 1949 with first class honours in geology but he had become interested in geophysics and went on to study the behaviour of the Earth’s field in the last few thousand years by measuring the magnetisation directions of dated varved clays from Sweden for his PhD.

In 1950 he accepted an appointment to start geophysics in the Geology Department at the University of Birmingham against the advice of his Professor, Sir William Pugh, later Director of the British Geological Survey, who warned him that there was no future in geophysics! Donald was promoted to Professor of Geophysics in 1965, one of the first such appointments in a UK geology department. He continued his work on varved clays with his lifelong friend, collaborator, and brother-in-law the Cambridge physicist Roy King, whom he recruited for the fieldwork in Sweden and who later became a Reader in Geophysics at Birmingham. They started one of the UK’s first taught MSc courses in Geophysics in 1955, a highly prestigious postgraduate training course that ran for over 40 years. They initiated the department’s extensive investigations into the deep structure of N. Wales combining gravity and magnetic with on- and off-shore seismic surveys. These pioneering surveys were done with Derek Blundell and their graduate students using their own specially designed equipment and techniques to record signals from underwater explosions after dispelling the well-publicised fears of local fishermen!

The confidence gained from the success of this work led to a bold proposal for geophysical investigations in Antarctica to the Director of the Falklands Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), Sir Vivian Fuchs, who had negotiated an agreement with the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Raymond Priestley, also of Antarctic fame, to set up the Antarctic Group in Geology at the University of Birmingham in the 1950s. Geophysical work continued for 25 years. The team, led by Peter Barker, carried out seismic, gravity and magnetic surveys, dredging, and drilling in the Scotia Sea over an area of more than a million square miles underlain by complex geology. The data were skilfully interpreted in terms of micro-plates resulting from ‘back arc spreading’, a model which could not have been foreseen when the project started.

Donald also became interested in the East African Rift where one of his former students Aftab Khan at Leicester had started geophysical surveys in 1965 to determine the deep structure of the Rift. Their work led to the Kenya Rift International Seismic Project (KRISP), the landmark study of continental rifts, which ran from 1985 to 1994.

Donald was also a pioneer in small-scale geophysics. After retirement in 1987, he and Ron Barker developed, a visionary computer controlled resistivity meter and imaging system. The methodology is now routinely used in a wide range of investigations in hydrogeology, engineering, environmental monitoring, and archaeology, all of which require knowledge of the shallow subsurface.

Donald was an imaginative and inspirational geophysicist. He was a wonderful raconteur and wit with a great sense of fun. He was much loved by colleagues, friends and students from many parts of the world. Geophysical field camps were often run as family affairs, often managed by lively wife Jean who survives him, and assisted by his daughter Bronwen, and son Geoffrey who followed him into an academic career, which started with a PhD on remote sensing in East Africa.
Donald served the geophysical community well. He and Jim Briden initiated the formation of the JAG, the forerunner of the BGA. The two editions of his geophysics textbook with Roy King were extremely popular with geologists and engineers for whom it was written. He was recognised for his contributions to geophysical research and education by awards from the Geological Society of London and the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers.

Aftab Khan