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Russell Black, 1930-2009

Russell Black was born in 1930 in La Rochelle, France, to Scottish parents. He moved to the UK in 1940 and was educated in Scotland, gaining a First Class Honours degree in Geology in 1950. It was probably no coincidence that the granite buildings of Aberdeen guided Russel towards an eminent career studying the granites of northern Africa. He undertook three months’ fieldwork on alkaline ring complexes in Jos, Nigeria as an undergraduate, and from there on his life-long love of African geology was born. Russel completed a PhD at Aberdeen and focused on the Rop ring complex, which led to him co-authoring a Memoir of the Geological Society on Nigerian Younger Granites.

He moved to the Service de Géologie et de Prospection Minière in Dahomey, where he was in charge of mapping alkaline ring complexes in Southern Niger; and finally, with the BRGM in France in 1964, he published a massive complilation map at 1/500,000 scale of the Niger ring complexes, which had 3-4000 sampled control points. This is a very remote desert region which Russel loved. He was never happier than when sitting around a campfire in a starlit desert listening to the BBC World Service in the company of Tuareg nomads.

Russel took up a professorship at the University of Leeds in 1970-1974 with a secondment to Adis Ababa. He was the lead author of a very prescient paper on the normal faulting in Afar in 1975, which outlined the complex nature of faulting in highly-stretched crust. This publication did not get the credit it deserved at the time, coming well before the renaissance in extensional tectonics and the discovery elsewhere of low-angle detachment surfaces.

I first met Russel in 1976 at the Centre de Géologie et Géophysique in Montpellier, where he directed a very active group of geologists who were embarking on a huge study of a Pan-African mobile belt. I was struck by his generosity in allowing a young PhD student to lodge for several weeks with him in the beautifully furnished apartment that he shared with his wife José. They were convivial hosts whose stories of life in Africa and collection of African art were fascinating. Russel took me on my first expedition, driving across the Sahara desert from Algiers to Mali, which took well over a week as we stopped off in various oasis towns en route. Everywhere we went people stopped to greet the big man Russel, with his equally impressive Pyrénéen mountain dog, Joyce.

Russel and his co-authors published a superb paper in Nature in 1979 documenting one of the oldest suture zones in the geological record - the Adrar des Iforas and Gourma belt in Mali. This confirmed that plate tectonics, as we know them, took place in the late Precambrian (700-800Ma) when the lithosphere had cooled enough to generate obducted eclogites and blueschist rocks. Russel continued to lead the dynamic Montpellier group until 1991. At the natural end of the Ifroras project he moved to the CNRS in Paris and continued to develop his ideas on African granites and the Pan-African orogeny.

Russel died peacefully in Paris several months after a stroke. He loved geology, Africa and life, which can be summed up in his own words: La géologie est un art, pas un téchnique, encore moins un travail.

Ian Davison