Ian Gass, 1926-1992

A decade after his death we republish an obituary of Ian Gass. It is by Arthur Butcher who was responsible for the OU’s science in Scotland between 1971 and 1992.

Ian Graham Gass, geologist, born Gateshead 20 March 1926, staff Sudan Geological Survey 1952-55, Cyprus Geological Survey 1955-60, Assistant Lecturer Leicester University 1960-61, Lecturer / Senior Lecturer Leeds University 1961-69, Professor of Earth Sciences and Head of Discipline Open University 1969-82, Personal Chair 1982-91, Emeritus Professor 1991-92, FRS 1983, Honorary Visiting Professor Leeds University 1992, married 1955 Mary Pearce (one son, one daughter), died Bedford 8 October 1992.

THE SCIENTIFIC revolution completed at the close of the 1960s transformed dull and boring Geology into dynamic Earth Sciences. In Britain, the coincidental setting up of the Open University provided Ian Gass with the clean slate he needed to found a department of world renown, in both teaching and research.

Based at Walton Hall in Milton Keynes, the heart of the UK’s largest and most distinctive university, the Department of Earth Sciences reaches out to an entirely part-time, adult undergraduate student body scattered the length and breadth of Britain, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, beyond. It was Gass’s department until he stepped aside in 1982 and, having survived problems of health which would surely have defeated lesser mortals, he finally succumbed to another stroke just one year after his retirement from a Personal Chair in 1991. He was Emeritus Professor in Earth Sciences at the time of his death.

Born in Gateshead in 1926 and educated first at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne, and then in Huddersfield, Ian Gass always maintained that his ancestral home was a pile of crumbling stones somewhere in Perthshire. After service in the Army towards the end and in the aftermath of the Second World War, he entered Leeds University, where he graduated BSc in 1952. His principal mentor there was WQ Kennedy, famed for his fundamental geological work in the Scottish Highlands and who provided inspiration and vision for a succession of students. Gass subsequently graduated MSc 1955, PhD 1960 and DSc 1972, all at Leeds University.

Thus encouraged by Kennedy, Ian Gass joined the staff of the Sudan Geological Survey in 1952, moving to the Cyprus Geological Survey in 1956 where he served until 1960. His years as a survey geologist laid the foundation for his remarkable achievements in later life as a teacher and researcher, as it did for Kennedy and has done for so many other notable geologists. Specifically, the island of Cyprus caught his imagination and enabled him later to formulate his ideas, first published in Nature in 1968, that there is to be seen in Cyprus a fragment of old ocean floor, caught and pushed up between the colliding continents of Africa and Eurasia to the north. Many of Gass’s scientific publications, around 100 in total, concern the intriguing rocks to be found in the ancient oceanic crust, collectively termed ophiolites, and with which his name will always be associated.

Leaving the life of a survey geologist, Ian Gass had the great good fortune to spend a year as Assistant Lecturer in Geology under Peter Sylvester-Bradley, FW Bennett Professor in the infant University of Leicester. He thus came under the spell, albeit briefly, of one of the most remarkable heads of department ever to grace the university scene. Attracted back to Leeds by Kennedy, Gass spent the 1960s first as Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer in Geology.

At Leeds, Kennedy had established in 1955 a Research Institute of African Geology which he directed until his retirement in 1967, when he was succeeded by Robert Shackleton. The 1960s were thus productive years for Gass in his research effort, no doubt fuelled by his common cause with both Kennedy and Shackleton. In 1962, he led the Royal Society expedition to Tristan da Cunha, following the eruption and subsequent evacuation of the tiny population on that remote outpost in the South Atlantic earlier that year. In 1970 was published a major text of 461 pages, African Tectonics and Magmatism, co-edited with Tom Clifford.

The story of the conception and birth of the Open University is now well known. Following Harold Wilson’s public utterance in Glasgow in 1963 and Jennie Lee’s role as political midwife, Walter Perry, then Vice-Principal of Edinburgh University (now Lord Perry), was appointed as the Vice- Chancellor and other foundation posts were quickly filled. Fortunately for science, Mike Pentz, a larger-than-life character if ever there was one, was chosen to be Dean and Ian Goss as foundation professor designate of Earth Sciences. By this time, April 1969, it should be noted that the decision had already been taken at Leeds University to change the name of the Department of Geology to the Department of Earth Sciences, the first in the UK so to do.

Gass launched himself and the people he appointed as colleagues into a fury of activity in temporary accommodation on a building site at Walton Hall. The faculty’s Science Foundation Course was delivered on time in 1971, comprising Earth Sciences along with Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Even the lengthy postal strike that year failed to stop delivery of that innovative course in mass scientific higher education. Between March and December 1970, Ian Gass, Peter Smith and Chris Wilson conceived, edited and produced Understanding the Earth, a text of 355 pages which was to have a major impact round the world. It seems astonishing now to recall that this ‘little book’ published by Artemis Press and so described later by the physicist PMS Blackett (Lord Blackett), was designed as an accompanying Reader to the Science Foundation Course.

Gass immediately adapted to the new teaching environment of the Open University. As well as in written course-materials, he excelled as a teacher on television. His love/hate relationship with the BBC became legendary but he inspired confidence through the medium of television, bringing a subject of enormous interest and fascination in to the homes of many. Geology is not an easy subject to convey to others, but his television programme on the Tertiary Central Igneous Complex of the Isle of Skye, for example, won major awards.

Right from the start, the Open University decided to hold residential, one-week Summer Schools for all students in host institutions around the country. There are no prizes for guessing the location of the first, 1972, Summer Schools in Earth Sciences to form part of the then new second-level Geology course. The Leeds-based Summer Schools continued for six years until transferred to Durham University, where they continue with equal vigour still.

Gass ruthlessly exploited every possible avenue of funding for research which a new organisation allowed, with spectacular results. Seizing the opportunity to acquire a permanent brick building at Walton Hall when Open University Educational Enterprises moved off campus, he set about consolidating his department’s position. Building extensions housing modern, costly equipment produced results with major research projects round the world being set up. He personally supervised the work of many research students. It was natural and to be expected that the main expertise to be developed would be in so-called hard-rock geology (volcanology, geochemistry, etc) but Gass encouraged a broad spectrum of scientific interests.

Gass found time to serve on many important committees, notably as President of the International Association for Volcanology & Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI) in 1983-87. Among many distinctions, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1983, serving on its Council and as Vice-President, 1985-86. The Geological Society of London awarded him its Prestwich Medal in 1979 and its Murchison Medal in 1988.

Ian Gass was a warm-hearted product of Tyneside with an earthy style and sense of humour. Others, especially outside the geological community or his own immediate sphere of interest, may have found him somewhat abrasive at times, but he was always courteous, especially to subordinates, even if direct. He had an uncanny knack of surrounding himself with colleagues with whom he did not necessarily agree. He clearly loved a good fight.

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