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John Staveley Watson 1945-2014 (long version)


Open University technician with a wide range of technical expertise and artistic flair who was a stalwart of the OU for a third of a century.

(Picture: John Watson finds one of his palaeoenvironment reconstructions on display at the Glasgow Botanic Gardens.)

John Staveley Watson died of a heart attack at his home in Fenny Stratford last October a few days before his 69th birthday. He was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire in 1945, and attended Scarborough Boys High School. On leaving school he became a laboratory technician in the electroplating industry with Erskine Laboratories in Scarborough, but after only a few years was made redundant. Subsequently he became self-employed, which gave him an opportunity to further his A-level studies, achieving very good results that gained him a place to study geology at Hull University, where he started as a mature student in 1973. After successfully completing his B.Sc. Honours in Geology, he took up teacher training, and was awarded a PGCE with distinction. However, experiences of teaching practice led him to look elsewhere for permanent employment. Following temporary posts in the Yorkshire Museum and tutoring of O-level students, he was engaged as a geology demonstrator at an Open University (OU) residential school based in Durham. It was there that he was encouraged to apply for a technician’s post in the Department of Earth Sciences at the OU in Milton Keynes. There he remained for the rest of his working life, gaining a reputation for being extremely resourceful, dependable and thoroughly meticulous in all that he did, and rising to a senior technical position.

Having a broad geological background with a strong foundation in chemistry and appropriate experience of laboratory work John was ideally suited to the role of geochemistry technician and became involved in the development of several analytical systems. It was not long before he was given responsibility for the day-to-day running of neutron activation, atomic absorption and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis equipment. He could be relied upon to apply his practical skills in all sorts of areas; including rock crushing, analytical sample preparation, repairing equipment, and even making man-sized dinosaur cut-out models for open day. Consequently he was often called upon to assist in other Earth Science activities including the preparation and collection of teaching specimens. This in turn led to his involvement in trips to collect rocks for teaching kits from locations far and wide in Britain and Europe. He relished journeying to new places and frequently joined travelling parties in his own time and at his own expense. Colleagues found him an excellent field assistant and travelling companion, so he was often invited to participate in collecting trips and field activities for both teaching and research. The more unusual of these activities included the extraction of precious metal-bearing heavy mineral samples from stream sediments using his own brand of suction pump, and an involvement in producing silicon moulds of Precambrian fossilised surfaces in Charnwood.

As a result of his considerable expertise in geoanalytical sample preparation, John was first choice in the early ‘90s to take part in the preparation of several international geochemical reference materials being produced collaboratively between the OU and BRGM, a major research institute in Nancy, France. When the GeoPT proficiency testing programme was initiated by the International Association of Geoanalysts (IAG) in 1994, John was involved at the outset, and for 20 years was frequently a key member of the team responsible for the collection and preparation of many test samples. He was a member of the IAG, and attended Geoanalysis conferences in Finland (2003) and South Africa (2009) as well as Ambleside in 1994 where he co-presented workshops on sampling and sample preparation. His quiet manner, sound technical knowledge and a desire to help others solve geological and geoanalytical problems gained him much respect and many friends from the global community of geoanalysts.

John was responsible for XRF facilities at the Open University for over 25 years. He relished training students and researchers in sample preparation procedures, giving freely of his time and the benefits of his extensive experience. Always approachable and willing to provide assistance, he took great delight in helping foreign visitors develop a better understanding of the idiosyncrasies of our language and customs.

With involvement in many research activities he made contributions to at least 40 scientific publications, mostly involving geoanalysis or the production of reference materials. Archaeology was among his wider interests and he was involved in several major projects, including provenancing of the Stonehenge bluestones and later, Bronze Age stone artifacts found as grave goods. Although he retired just over 3 years ago he had continued in a 'visiting' role at the OU, working part-time and maintaining an XRF analysis facility for students, academics and external customers. He also continued to provide considerable assistance to the GeoPT programme, and applied his skills to the operation of a CNS elemental analyzer.

John had remarkable artistic abilities, which were demonstrated when he produced portraits of Captain Cook and the late Professor Ian Gass. These talents were put to more practical use in producing computer-assisted pictorial reconstructions of ancient geological environments and landscapes: images that featured in several Open University courses, and have been displayed in several museums. He was also a keen photographer and was involved in taking pictures from the air of OU residential school field locations in northern England. These images were the basis of a photographic book that he produced in conjunction with the OU Geological Society for the benefit of OU Earth Science students. Outside of his interests in geology and geoanalysis he had an abiding fascination for military history, militaria and weaponry, and was a keen genealogist, tracing his own family origins and helping others trace theirs. He even won a prize for a detailed account of arsenic poisoning that had caused the death of a family member in the nineteenth century.

John was a stalwart of the Department of Earth Sciences at The Open University for over 36 years. He had been a fellow of the Geological Society since 1977 and a member of the Yorkshire Geological Society since 1975. He will be remembered with considerable affection by those that knew him and will be sorely missed.

Dr Peter Webb (Friend and colleague for over 35 years)