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William Alexander Deer, 1910-2009

Alex Deer was an essential partner in two classic petrological collaborations of the 20th Century - with Wager on the Skaergaard intrusion and with Howie & Zussman on Rock Forming Minerals.

Born and brought up in Rusholme, a suburb of Manchester, Alex in his mid-teens came across Darwin's Origin of Species. Reading this through seems to have crystallised an ambition to become a natural scientist and perhaps helped fuel the drive through the school system to Manchester University, and a research studentship at St John's College, Cambridge. One of the first students in C E Tilley's newly formed Department of Mineralogy and Petrology, he came to the notice of Laurence Wager, veteran of Everest and seasoned arctic explorer.

Wager was planning an expedition to study the remarkable igneous intrusion he had discovered in East Greenland. So Alex went as second geologist with the 1935-36 party, which spent a year on the Skaergaard, including a long arctic winter with Inuit hunters in that beautiful but unforgiving environment. Not only was the superbly exposed Skaergaard Intrusion itself mapped and studied in detail, but also some 35,000 square km of difficult and dangerous country mapped in reconnaissance - an extraordinary feat carried out by two two-man sledging teams. It is a tribute to his character that he returned from the Arctic a firm friend with his famously perfectionist and exacting leader.

Wager and Deer’s 1939 memoir, arguably one of the more important petrological publications of the 20th Century, was the first quantitative study of the successive layers of crystal accumulation in a large magma chamber and gave strong support to N L Bowen's general emphasis on crystallisation and differentiation in igneous petrogenesis. However the main Skaergaard trend was towards iron rather than the silica enrichment required by the Bowen model (of granite genesis by evolution from basalt). Wager and Deer argued instead that crustal fusion and/or contamination must be the main mechanisms of granite formation - a concept largely ignored, until 40 years later when it became the ruling paradigm.

The outbreak of war months later stifled the impact of the Skaergaard memoir and put the careers of both authors on hold. Alex joined up, trained as a gas officer in the Royal Engineers, and served on the General Staff in Iraq and Iran. Posted to organise a new Indian Corps, he was thrown into the desperate battle of Kohima, which finally denied the Japanese access to India.

Alex left the army with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and could have remained as a “War Office wallah”, but preferred to resume his Cambridge lectureship. By now he had a family to support, so moonlighted at St Johns as Junior Bursar and Tutor. In 1950 he was called back as Professor to Manchester. Over his 10 years there he expanded a tiny department into a top-rate School of Geology, boasting the first hydrothermal high-pressure experimental laboratory in Britain.

In 1961, Alex succeeded Tilley as Professor of Mineralogy and Petrology in Cambridge. Alex's unaffected friendliness and easy accessibility stood in marked contrast to the prevailing professorial style of the day, and his talents did not long escape the notice of the wider University, which appointed him to its General Board. He is remembered for the “Deer Report”, which in 1965 argued the case for expansion onto the cornfields of West Cambridge. As Master of Trinity Hall from 1966 he presided over an extensive building programme, and in 1971 took over as Vice-Chancellor for four years.

Outside Cambridge he served as President of the Mineralogical Society, Trustee of the British Museum (Natural History) and member of NERC. As President of the Geological Society (1970-72) he replaced the traditional Anniversary Presidential Address with the President's Evening, which evolved into our current President’s Day. He won the Murchison Fund in 1946 and Murchison Medal in 1974; other distinctions include Fellowship of the Royal Society (1962) and Honorary DSc (University of Aberdeen, 1984).

Alex was able to return to the Skaergaard on two further expeditions - that of Oxford and Manchester universities (Wager, 1953) and of Oxford/Cambridge (1966), the year after Wager's death, which planned drilled into the hidden zone of the intrusion. Some 380 metres of core were recovered, which continue to provide otherwise unobtainable data on the evolution of the magma chamber. Alex also conducted summer expeditions to Baffin Land (1948) and the Shiant Isles (1962-64, with Harald Drever).

Alex's name is now inseparably associated with the monumental work Rock-forming Minerals by Deer, Howie and Zussman (“DHZ”). The first edition of five volumes (1962) was replaced from 1978 by a greatly expanded second edition. And is now an encyclopaedia of 11 volumes. Until well into his 91st year, Alex was still tirelessly revising his share of the opus.

Alex married Margaret Kidd (1938) and had three children - David (1940) Diana (1946) and Stephen(1952). After Margaret's death (1971), he married Rita Tagg in 1973. At a ripe age, he became a competent bassoon player. Confined in his last years by physical infirmity, he took pleasure in the talented paintings of his daughter and wife, which covered the walls of his flat, and remained a cheerful and convivial companion with formidable recall and acuity to the last. William Alexander (Alex) Deer born 26 October 1910, died 8 February 2009.

Graham Chinner