David Stoddart, (PC: THe Guardian)
David Ross Stoddart died in Berkeley, California on 23 November, 2014. When I first went to Louisiana State University in 1962, I heard tales of “Red Beard” from my supervisor Professor R.J. Russell. At that time there was a good connection between Russell and Professor Alfred Steers of Cambridge who had encouraged David to undertake his PhD field work on coral reefs in the Caribbean. Russell was impressed with the energy and intellectual strengths of this young man who was beginning a career in coral reef research.
Many obituaries have been written about David. But he wanted to get in first by writing his own (Be of good cheer, my weary readers, for I have espied the land, or getting in first before the orbituarists)! It was both sad to have to read those of others, but at the same time rewarding. It was another opportunity to appreciate his many insights and contributions to coastal science in particular and to geography in general. I will not try to repeat what they (and an alive DRS) have said (see for instance, Peter Haggett’s in The Geographical Journal, December, 2015, vol. 181, pp. 437-439), but to offer some personal reflections.
David is one of those rare individuals that can combine scholarship and field science at the highest level. He had a massive personal library, not just as a collector but for the purpose of working out how others saw the physical world and therefore the evolution of natural science. Charles Darwin was one of his great heroes. He read through Darwin’s correspondence to ascertain Darwin’s influence on geography and he researched the history of the Royal Geographic Society. He played a role in the establishment of journals and published prolifically in places such as the Atoll Research Bulletin. His broader interests were captured in a book that I often love to pick up and read, On Geography and its History, Blackwell, 1986.
In the early 70s when I was at Australian National University, I had a visit from David. He was looking for support for an expedition to the northern Great Barrier Reef. His mentor, Steers had been part of an expedition in the late 1920s and he was fascinated by the prospect of returning to Low Isles and other cays and reefs. At the time I was in possession of a drill rig and driller, ANU was the place to do radiocarbon dating, and Roger McLean had just joined the university and was keen to get stuck into reef work in Australia. The Expedition also involved folk from the University of Queensland, James Cook University and scientists from the UK. The main sponsor was the Royal Society. How could I not resist the temptation to drag the drill onto the reefs in 1973 at a time when there was much speculation on the thickness of the Holocene reef growth—that is another story. Stoddart made all this possible. He encouraged a wide range of interests such as coral taxonomy involving Charlie Veron, mangrove ecology on cays, the significance of micro-atolls and other reef sedimentary environments and morphologies. He was into everything as our leader, and in 1976 he gathered us altogether in London for presentations of our respective studies at the Royal Society (later published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1978). It was a marvellous team effort inspired by one man, DRS.
(PC: Department of
In 1980, I spent a sabbatical at Cambridge residing in David’s college, Churchill, and working out of the Geography Department. Here I saw David in a different light, as an indifferent teacher but inspirational in the field as he charged across the salt marshes at Norfolk and supporting those who loved to get wet and muddy; as a stirrer who just could not stand the stupidities of internal academic politics; and as a drinker who held court in one of the locals at regular intervals with several students and me, the non-drinker, listening with fascination as he held forth on his travels, on people, on past giants of science, and on current research. It was never boring although at times I became frustrated with the gossip. He was extraordinary kind to me and my family and has left me with a long-lasting association with Cambridge, especially Churchill College.
He moved to the USA in 1988 to become Professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, retiring in 2000. He was not a well man being affected by skin cancers. Yet he maintained to the end his fascination for field observations, for engaging with colleagues especially those in reef science, and in publishing. I visited his home in 2003 to be overwhelmed by his library and piles of papers on different topics that he was working on. One topic of scientific and political concern was the protection of environmental values on the Seychelles, especially the remote raised atoll of Aldabra. Military plans to convert this island into an RAF base were fought successfully by David working through the Royal Society. Even in 2003 he still had concerns and was busy seeking FOI on the past role of the British Government. However, as a result of his field studies and advocacy Aldabra received full UNESCO protection in 1982. He named his daughter after the island.
To me DRS stands along with the giants of natural science. He is up there with von Humboldt, Darwin, Powell, G.P. Marsh, and our own Griffith Taylor. These all have in common an insatiable appetite for travel involving detailed field observations that underpin interpretations of the connected natural systems. They also were in a position to use their science to directly or indirectly influence public policy and education. His work should never be forgotten and I for one will always treasure his kindness and thoughts along with the opportunities to undertake work on the GBR. Vale DRS.
Words by Prof Bruce Thom, please respect Bruce Thom’s thoughts and reference where appropriately: (c) ACS, 2016, posted 10th January 2016, for correspondence about this blog post please email email@example.com.