Professor John Barrie Thornes
27 December 1940–17 July 2008
Version of Record online: 31 OCT 2008
© 2008 The Author(s). Journal compilation © 2008 The Royal Geographical Society
The Geographical Journal
Volume 174, Issue 4, pages 387–388, December 2008
How to Cite
BRUNSDEN, D. (2008), Professor John Barrie Thornes. The Geographical Journal, 174: 387–388. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4959.2008.00308.x
- Issue online: 31 OCT 2008
- Version of Record online: 31 OCT 2008
John Thornes was a charismatic leader, a stimulating teacher, an indefatigable and passionate fieldworker of natural ability who possessed a remarkable and original research mind. He was a strategic thinker who became an enlightened Head of Geography at Bedford College, Bristol University and King's College. He was the driving force behind the European Council Medalus Research programmes and the President who worked tirelessly to bring the Royal Geographical Society and the Institute of British Geographers back together. He was one of the most influential physical geographers of his generation.
His early life was spent in Horbury near Wakefield and Ossett Grammar School where he gained a lifelong passion for landscape and the inter-relationships between rocks, relief, climate, soils, vegetation and human activity. A strong man, he loved walking and new places. His mantra was to travel with a small rucksack and a big pocketbook. He ignored weather, hot sun, steep slopes, rivers and rough ground. What was important was ‘getting the job done’. The only obstacles were in the mind.
John graduated from Queen Mary College, London with a first-class degree. He took an MSc at McGill University where he worked on the ‘Late glacial stages in the development of the Coaticook Valley, southern Quebec’, and then a Tutorial Studentship at King's College where he completed a PhD on ‘Erosion and sedimentation in the Alto Duero in Spain’.
Spain and fieldwork dominated his academic life. Field trips for students at King's and the London School of Economics (LSE) took place nearly every year from 1968. Andalucia and Murcia were the favoured landscapes. Generations of students remember trips to Mojacar, Tabernas and Antas. His students experienced the 1973 floods on the Guadalfeo and Almanzora Rivers where he began to learn the lessons of the frequency and magnitude of geomorphological processes. The enthusiasm experienced in the field generated numerous research students, field programmes and a fruitful exchange of ideas between scientific communities in both countries. The idea soon spread until it became a commonplace for British geography departments to develop adventurous fieldwork in the new environments provided by cheap holiday packages. Students were his life. He supervised more than 25 PhD students and numerous MSc degrees. He was well loved and respected as a teacher, friend and mentor. Several Spanish students, now colleagues, came to his funeral.
The semi-arid landscape became the focus of John's research. His early papers were summarised in his LSE monograph Semi-arid Erosional Systems, which established a pattern that became a hallmark of his subsequent work. It drew together a clear exposition of an academic problem, relevant observation, description and measurement of the system components and innovative conceptual models. From this time he was influenced greatly by the work of Michael Kirkby, who became a friend and inspiration. He was captivated by new ways of thinking, moving from descriptive models to deterministic and stochastic processes, systems theory, or chaos theory with ease. Eventually, these approaches were to form the focus for his major research programmes, including an innovative approach to hardware modelling of erosion at the Long Ashton Research Station and then the basis of the Environmental Monitoring and Modelling Research Group at King's.
This early work was strengthened by experience in South America, especially studies in the Amazon basin with Stephen Nortcliffe. He had a keen interest in palaeohydrology, working closely with Professor Leszek Starkel from Poland and Professor Ken Gregory whom he greatly admired. Steadily, he received research grants from research councils, the Royal Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the LSE. Again, this culminated in new initiatives. He worked in sub-Arctic Canada, Iceland, Argentina, Brunei, and the Mojave Desert. He was a leading light, and film star, in the RGS hovercraft expedition to Brazil and Venezuela.
In 1988, John returned to the semi-arid theme with massive European grants to promote research in desertification, first in southern Europe and then more widely. He led the EU projects on Mediterranean Desertification and Land Use (MEDALUS), which in 1991–99 helped to establish the modern methodologies, models and datasets to evaluate and mitigate desertification. It was a fortuitous time when in 1994 the UN was developing the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The Medalus work, which linked 40 European institutions in cooperative research, is widely regarded as a formative link in this agenda and continues to influence research through the MODULUS, MedAction, DESERTLINKS and DESURVEY projects.
Even after ill health forced him to slow down, he travelled to China and South Africa, widening his themes to include the effects of grazing on semi-arid dynamics and vegetation. He returned again and again to the relationship between vegetation and geomorphology, which I first heard him describe to students in 1968 in a gully behind Torremolinos. He made each student stand on a bush to illustrate competition for water and then drew Thiessen polygons around them to show their contributing area!
He was a prolific author with more than 130 research papers and book chapters, 11 major books and numerous EU research documents. His early work produced Geomorphology and Time with Denys Brunsden, Vegetation and Erosion, and then the influential volumes, with many colleagues, on the Mediterranean, Mediterranean Desertification and Land Use, Atlas of Mediterranean Environments and Environmental Issues in the Mediterranean, which drew together a remarkable lifetime achievement.
Above all, however, he was a team player. All of the major British academic organisations benefited from his hard work, boundless enthusiasm and leadership. At the Royal Geographical Society he was a welcome member of the Geographical Club, a supporter of the Expedition Advisory Centre, a productive member of the hovercraft expeditions to the Amazon, a member of Council and a recipient of the Patron's Medal. In 1992 he was President of the Institute of British Geographers where he argued the case for the merger of the two societies. In the early days of the British Geomorphological Research Group, he became a driving enthusiast in whose company we really felt we were establishing a modern subject. He was a strong supporter of the creation of the International Association of Geomorphologists and never missed a meeting. He was rewarded in 1998 with the Linton Medal, the highest honour that his chosen subject can bestow. Then, in 2005, came the Honorary Doctorate of the University of Murcia, as Spain recognised his seminal contributions to semi-arid and Mediterranean research and his dedication to the establishment of Anglo-Spanish links over four decades.
John met Rosemary when they were students at Queen Mary College. They married in 1962 and shared all these experiences together. Rosemary ‘organised’ him and they became the perfect team. After his serious stroke, in 1996, she became his lifeline. Together they travelled to conferences, fieldtrips and continents. He was loved by his children Chris and Clare, his grandchildren and Rosemary's family to whom he was a teacher and friend. He died doing what he did best, on a field trip in south Shropshire. He was one of life's great characters and he enriched us all. I loved him.