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Robert Stoneley, 1929 – 2008

Bob Stoneley, Senior Fellow, was born in 1929 - son of Dr Robert Stoneley, the discoverer of the eponymous waves. Bob graduated in Geology from Cambridge in 1951 and spent the next 18 months with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, carrying out geological expeditions from Hope Bay in Antarctica.

As described by Sir Vivian Fuchs in his book Of Ice and Men Bob’s experiences were truly epic. The arrival of his party caused an international incident. The Argentine military were already in residence and fired machine guns over his party’s heads as they carried stores ashore, before marching them back to the John Biscoe at gun point. The Royal Navy had to send a gunboat to resolve the misunderstanding.

His Antarctic adventures continued. On one occasion Bob and his dog team fell down a crevasse. Bob got out alone. In another incident he used his body as ballast to prevent the sledge being blown away in a blizzard. On his return he was awarded the Polar Silver Medal, for ‘extreme human endeavour against appalling weather and conditions that exist in the Arctic and Antarctic.’ He was also awarded a PhD and married palaeobotanist Hilda Cox.

Bob spent the next 26 years with BP, exploring for petroleum in Tanganyika, Angola, New Zealand, Canada, Alaska, Ecuador and Iran. His adventures included paddling down the Amazon in a dugout canoe and dodging angry African rhinos and Alaskan grizzlies. During these years Bob published a series of papers on the origins of the mountain chains he had visited. In Alaska, Bob led the team responsible for the discovery, early appraisal drilling and evaluation of Prudhoe Bay field. His last assignment for BP was as Chief Geologist of the Oil Services Company of Iran, with responsibility for a drilling programme of 25 rigs.

In 1979 Bob left BP to take up the Chair of Petroleum Geology at Imperial College. This was a challenging post. Acting on the recommendation of government advisers, the Oil Technology Group of the Geology Department had been bisected. Petroleum engineering had been moved into the Department of Mining and received abundant funding. Petroleum geology received nothing. Though there was no shortage of students, there were few staff and their stay was brief, as North Sea salaries beckoned.

Nonetheless, Bob quickly turned the group round, securing additional funding for posts and revitalising the MSc Petroleum Geology Course. Bob played a key role in the establishment of the Joint Association for Petroleum Exploration Courses (JAPEC) of which he was Chairman for nine years. This combined the forces of IC, the PESGB and the Geological Society and brought valuable funds into the IC department.

Bob was very much the old style university professor. His door was always open for any student to enter for pastoral or geological succour. Generations of IC petroleum geology students will have fond memories of the traditional Dorset field trip and will recall Professor Stoneley standing on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, leaning into horizontal rain while expounding Dorset's geological wonders into the wind like some Old Testament prophet. Meanwhile the children of Israel leant against the gale, scribbling his words into their sodden notebooks.

The second recollection will be of the evenings, with the party back at the hotel warm, dry, fed and watered. After dinner students gathered for the traditional ‘prayer meeting’, now with dry note books, while Bob, behind a map strewn table, with a pint of beer, and a small cigar, continued to profess his subject in a more congenial setting. During these years Bob published seminal contributions to the understanding of the complex generation and migration of petroleum in the Wessex basin using little more than a hammer, pencil, paper and the little grey cells. Overall, however, his published output was modest. He retained the old academic view that it was rather vulgar to publish too much too often.

Bob was offered the Headship of the Department of Geology on Sir John Knill’s translation to NERC, and also the Deanship of the Royal School of Mines. He declined both. Bob served on the Council of the Geological Society and helped to found the Petroleum Group. He received the Society’s Coke Medal and the Petroleum Group Silver Medal. Bob was a life-long member of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists.

On his retirement in 1994 Bob retained his flat in South Kensington and continued his diverse geological activities, including regular attendance at PESGB meetings (of which he was an Honorary Member) where he delighted in meeting his former students, taking great pride as they progressed to senior appointments in the industry. Between 1993-98 he was General Secretary of the Geologists’ Association. In 2002 he was awarded the GA’s Halstead Medal. He was awarded the MacKay Hammer of the Geological Society of New Zealand.

Bob’s name lives on in Antarctica; Stoneley Point sits at the entrance to Whisky Bay on N. James Ross Island. In addition the Stoneley Medal is awarded to participants in the American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ annual student competition based on Imperial College’s Barrel Award.

Bob was one of the last old-style heroic field geologists, the sort of men capable of killing a hedgehog with their bare bottom. He was modest, courteous, convivial and kind. His humour was gentle and he spoke ill of no-one. Bob was a true English gentleman.

Dick Selley