Robert John Price

19 July 1936–29 November 2012



Dr Robert John Price

Source: Reproduced courtesy of Mrs Mary Price

The unexpected death of Bob Price will be a particular shock to many geomorphologists in universities on several continents and to many ex-students, some of whom will remember the always exciting times on fieldwork with him. Those interested in climate change, long-term energy supply and golf in Scotland will also be saddened by this news. Although a specialist in how ice shaped landscapes, his interest in the Quaternary period informed his contribution to more contemporary issues, and he became a highly regarded consultant after retiring early from the Geography Department of Glasgow University in 1990.

Brought up in South Wales, he was the first member of his family to attend university. After his BSc at the University of Wales (Aberystwyth) he chose to go to the University of Edinburgh to do a PhD under the supervision of Brian Sissons. This turned out to be the decision that shaped his entire career, the focus of which became the study of contemporary glaciers and ice fields as a way of understanding the legacy of the Quaternary Ice Age. He was the first European scientist to show how this could be done and to demonstrate the nature of the results. It was serendipitous that Glasgow University was establishing Photogrammetric studies within the Geography Department, which enabled the fieldwork required to have serious scientific measurement for the first time, and at a cost judged affordable by the relevant Research Council.

The Geography Department of Glasgow University, where he was on the staff from 1963 to 1990, proved an ideal place from which to conduct his teaching, particularly the supervision of very able research students. His field research took him to Alaska, Yukon, Iceland and Switzerland, as well as Scotland. During this period he published two textbooks on geomorphology and then in 1983 a book that has become a minor classic. It is entitled, Scotland's environment during the last 30,000 years. This 220-page survey of the rapidly accumulating and diverse evidence of paleo-climates not only saw the start of his participation in the ‘climate change’ debate, but it also made him seriously critical of the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and deeply concerned that many scientists were supporting generalisations for which there was little or no evidence. It must be said that his scepticism (scientific approach as he would call it) has been very fully justified in subsequent years.

From 1988, his efforts to keep the climate-change debate evidence based were paralleled by a substantial contribution to understanding the contemporary issues in the provision, management and promotion of golf in Scotland. Again his skills in fieldwork brought lasting results. His crucial finding in the 1990s that golf courses were growing in numbers considerably faster than participants was taken seriously by both the private sector developers and the public sector planning authorities for sport. The two books he published on golf in Scotland in 1989 and 2005 remain the basis for policy and practice today.

He published regularly in scientific journals and his truly substantial research-led contribution was appropriately recognised in 1984 with the award of a DSc by the University of Wales. He found time for leadership among his peers – notably as a member of the Council of Institute of British Geographers and Editor of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (1970–4), President of the British Geomorphological Research Group (1978–80), and President of Section E, British Association for the Advancement of Science (1983–4).

His major relaxations were playing golf and sailing in the challenging conditions to be found off the West Coast of Scotland. His Californian wife, who had a career as a schoolteacher in Scotland, and his son and daughter survive him. If there is one general lesson for all geographers irrespective of specialisation that stands out from this energetic, innovative and deeply honest scientist it is surely the adage: ‘study up close and in detail, but understand from a distance’.