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Ewart Kendall Walton 1924-2009


Ken Walton, Emeritus Professor of Geology at the University of St Andrews, died on June 23, 2009, aged 84. Ken was born in 1924 in Ashington, Northumberland, and attended Bedlington Grammar School before entering the University of Durham’s King's College at Newcastle-on-Tyne. He graduated in 1949, gained a PhD in 1952 and began his academic career (Assistant, Geology Department, Glasgow University), progressing to Lecturer and then Reader at Edinburgh University. In 1968 he was appointed to the Chair of Geology at the University of St. Andrews and a year later was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Most of his professional career was spent as Professor of Geology at St Andrews (1968-88) where he also served as Master of the United College (1972-76).

Ken made two very important contributions to geological research. First, he elucidated the processes involved in the deposition of sediments from turbidity currents traversing continental shelves. His work centred on the interpretation of structures in turbidites, such as sole marking and flow structures. This work was done in collaboration with his colleagues Gordon Craig and Donald Duff along with his first research student Gilbert Kelling and Polish contemporary Stanislav Dzulinski. His fruitful collaboration with Dzulinski led to Ken’s being elected to Foreign Membership of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences. Second, his study of Lower Palaeozoic turbidites in the south of Scotland made him an expert on the geology of the Southern Uplands and his publications, including chapters in Craig’s Geology of Scotland, laid the foundations for modern accretionary prism and terrane interpretations of this key piece of the Caledonian orogen. Many of his PhD students generated data which fed into these interpretations.

At St Andrews Ken had the challenge of modernising a rather traditional department. He managed the task well and in 1972 was invited by Principal Steven Watson to become Master of the United College to help modernise and strengthen the University following the separation a few years earlier of Queen’s College, Dundee, into an independent University. He could not have anticipated the rough ride he would receive concerning disproportionately high failure rates in the Science Faculty of Scottish students with Higher grades compared with English entrants with A-levels. The data seemed to support the case so, with astuteness and charm, Ken quickly put in place the changes that would finally solve the disparity, but not without some bruising encounters and much media attention.

Following his Mastership, Ken was invited to join the Physical Sciences Committee of the University Grants Committee (UGC). This was an important national role that influenced the funding of every university physical science department, and the committee visited each department in every university on a regular cycle. The end of his academic career coincided with the UGC’s Earth Science Review that culminated in the closure of several university geology departments across the UK. Geology staff spent weeks on a strategy to save the Department, which proved successful; Geology at St Andrews was one of the smallest departments to survive nationally. However, the price of survival was a merger with Geography and Ken opted to take early retirement in 1988. He remained active as a consulting geologist for a few years and ran local field excursions for youngsters and enthusiasts for many more years in his new-found home in the village of Crail.

Ken was always keen on sport, a passion he shared with his first wife Margaret. Even in his 50s he regularly out-performed staff half his age on the football field or the squash court. After retirement he became an active member of tennis and badminton clubs in Crail, and did much to encourage youth participation in sport. He also became involved in community work, particularly in relation to heritage and youth activities, and convened a local Writers’ Club. A hallmark of Ken’s life was a common humanity that clearly stemmed from his roots in a northern mining community. He was a genial man who put the interests and welfare of the student before the bureaucracy of the “bean counters”. His first wife, Margaret, predeceased him, in 1982. Soon after he married Sue, and became a fond stepfather to her three children. The marriage was later dissolved. He is survived by his children, Judith and Richard, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Richard Batchelor, with contributions from Ed Stephens and Gilbert Kelling.