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John Barrie Thornes 1940-2008

18 August 2008

John Thornes, former professor of physical geography and Dean of Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Science, died on 17 July at the age of 67. Emeritus Professor Peter Haggett remembers ‘one of the most eminent and influential physical geographers of his generation’.

John Thornes, professor of physical geography and Dean of Graduate Studies in the Science Faculty at Bristol from 1985 to 1992, died on 17 July 2008 at the age of 67.  Described by The Times obituarist as ‘one of the most eminent and influential physical geographers of his generation’, he came to Bristol from Bedford College London where he held the chair of physical geography and was Dean of Science and Deputy Principal. He returned to London after seven years to head the Department of Geography at his alma mater at King’s College and at the time of his death still held a research professorship there.

Born in Yorkshire in 1940 near Wakefield, John went from Ossett Grammar School to London University where he gained first-class honours in geography and geology. His Masters degree at McGill University in Montreal on glaciation in southern Quebec was followed by a return to London, where his doctoral work was on erosion and sedimentation in the Alto Duero in Spain. It was the start of a love affair with Mediterranean landscapes that was to last for his whole life. 

His research record spanned four decades during which time he published several hundred research papers and reports and wrote or edited a dozen books and monographs. His Geomorphology and Time (with Denys Brunsden) and Vegetation and Erosion attracted wide interest, while his triplet of later books with colleagues on the Mediterranean (Mediterranean Desertification and Land Use, Atlas of Mediterranean Environments and Environmental Issues in the Mediterraean) drew together his decades of work on these fragile environments. Over his lifetime, his field research areas extended from sub-Arctic Canada and Iceland, from Argentina to Brunei, to hovercraft expeditions to Brazil and Venezuela, but it was the erosional history of the lands around the Mediterranean that always drew him back. While at Bristol, he launched and co-ordinated the first of a series of MEDALUS projects financed by the European Community that drew together groups of scientists from several EC countries to study the complex processes of desertification and land-use change around the sea. Without his enthusiasm, his language skills, and his excellent organisational ability, this testing series of field experiments could not have been completeted.

When John came to Bristol, it had only one other professor and still a relatively small research budget. He attracted some outstanding research students, championed existing and new research programmes, and added specialist facilities such as the erosion test facility at the Long Ashton Research Station. By the time he left, Geography was a four-professor department with an expanded record in all areas. For Bristol students, John was a dominant presence: enthusiastic, vigorously striding over the landscape, strongly built, and with a voice that rarely needed a megaphone in field situations. His ability to bounce back from setbacks was legendary. My first conversation with John was with him lying prone on the carpet, crippled with a severe back problem; within months he was back in the field. A severe stroke in 1996 confined him to a wheelchair for a period, but, with typical courage and enthusiasm, he finally cast this aside to undertake research in China and South Africa. It was typical of him that the end should come when he collapsed while doing what he loved, taking a field class near his home in Shropshire.

John was widely honoured during his life. The Royal Geographical Society awarded him its Patron’s Medal in 1996 and he won the Linton Medal of the British Geomorphologists Research Group in 1998; he was President of the Institute of British Geographers in 1992. But perhaps the award which gave him perhaps his greatest pleasure was an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Murcia in 2005. It recognised not only his seminal dryland research contributions but also his championing of Anglo-Spanish academic links over many decades, links symbolised by the presence of several Spanish colleagues who came over for his funeral.

For the whole of his academic life, John had the constant support of Rosemary, whom he had met as a fellow-undergraduate at King’s. We extend our sympathy to Rosemary, and to their children (Chris and Clare) and grandchildren on their loss. John’s distinctive contribution to Bristol will be long remembered.

Peter Haggett


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