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Michael Robert House, 1930-2002

From his Dorset Jurassic roots, to which he returned in the last years of his life, Michael House relentlessly pursued the marine Devonian rocks and their ammonoid faunas across the face of the Earth. In so doing, he built a formidable reputation as one of the foremost stratigraphical palaeontologists of his generation.

Born the middle son of a Portland dockyard master plumber in 1930, Michael was greatly influenced by the master Jurassic worker, WJ Arkell. After school in Weymouth and National Service in the Army, he went to Cambridge under WBR King, taking a First (1954) having already secured a Lectureship in Geology at Durham University. Michael learned much of his skills in academic life from Kingsley Dunham - another Dorset man - and as a Member of University College in Durham.

Michael's lifelong research interests in Devonian ammonoids in Devon and Cornwall had already been decided in Cambridge. Michael's first major paper on Devon and Cornwall was published in 1963, adding substantially to knowledge of the marine Devonian and its stages based on ammonoid chronology. By this time, he had already published 19 papers on various aspects of the ammonoids and also Dorset geology. The Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society published his very first paper (1955) on the Red Nodule Beds near Weymouth.

Encouraged by Dunham, Michael spent 1958-59 as a Commonwealth Fund Fellow mostly at Harvard, Cornell and the US National Museum. At Cornell, the great American geologist JW Wells had founded the Friends of the Devonian, and this visit broadened Michael's knowledge of the Devonian into North America and sparked his appetite for foreign fieldwork.

At Durham, Michael established a reputation as an inspiring teacher. In 1963, the opportunity arose to move to Oxford to a Lectureship in Palaeontology. Michael subsequently became Dean of St. Peter's College (1965). Oxford provided the springboard for him to secure the Chair at Hull University (1967). Although small, a Department of Geology had existed at Hull for some time and Michael proved to be an excellent Head and he expanded the department’s activity into areas such as industrial mineralogy. He served as Dean of Science 1976-78 and as one of two Pro Vice-Chancellors (1980-83).

Michael served the wider Yorkshire community as President of the Yorkshire Geological Society (1972-74). At the same time he was also President of The Palaeontological Association, Section C of The British Association for the Advancement of Science (1977), The Systematics Association (1978-81) and The Palaeontographical Society (from 1988).

Disaster struck with the University Grants Committee ("Oxburgh") Report (May 1987) and its subsequent implementation, which led to the closure of departments at several UK universities. For a palaeontologist increasingly interested in the topic of extinction in Devonian ammonoids, Michael bore the loss of his Department at Hull with fortitude though not without resistance, eventually accepting a transfer to Southampton University (1988)

The phased move brought Michael closer to his Dorset roots as well as the Devonian in south-west England and he was able to continue and indeed expand his own personal research output. The ammonoids allowed him to establish some eleven major extinction events within the Devonian. He was a master of systematic palaeontology and, with increasing awareness of Milankovich cyclicity, a pioneer in seeking astronomical controls on sedimentation.

With fieldwork in southern France, Morocco, the Canning Basin in north-west Australia, south-east Asia and especially the eastern United States, Michael assembled the most impressive list of publications. At the time of his death, several remain in press; but well over 150 published items testify to his achievements.

He was a pioneer of work for the International Commission on Stratigraphy, serving on both the Silurian/Devonian and Devonian/Carboniferous Boundary Subcommittees. He was also on the International Advisory Panel for the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology.

In addition to this Society’s Daniel Pidgeon Fund (1957) and Wollaston Fund (1964), Michael was awarded the William Bolitho Gold Medal of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall (1970), the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society of London (1991), the Neville George Medal of the Geological Society of Glasgow (1984) and the Sorby Medal of the Yorkshire Geological Society (1986). With others, he helped found the Ussher Society in south-west England (1965).

He recently revised his definitive Guide to Dorset Geology and made a significant contribution to the successful bid to UNESCO for the Dorset and East Devon coast to be granted World Heritage status (2001).

In his retirement at Weymouth, he liked nothing better than to join other like-minded local enthusiasts on a Friday field excursion to study some aspect of Dorset geology. But the SubClass Ammonoidea will be forever linked to his name. Michael House, who, just like his favourite fossils, enjoyed (in A. Morley Davies’s words) "a short life and a merry one", was a world figure and a true gentleman who will be sorely missed.

Norman E. Butcher