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Department of Earth Sciences

Image of the front of the Sedgwick Museum entrance with bikes parked outside

Alumni News

Michael George Bown 
5th February 1928 - 29th July 2021

By Michael Carpenter


Alumni and friends of the Department will be sad to hear of the death of Mike Bown at the age of 93. For generations of students, going back to the days of the old Department of Mineralogy and Petrology, Mike will be remembered with great affection as a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher of crystallography and mineralogy. Those of us who had the good fortune to be on the staff with him will also remember his warmth and generosity as well as his sharp wit and invariable good humour.

Mike was an undergraduate at Clare College, coming up in 1946. He had been awarded a scholarship to read Natural Sciences and chose Physics in Part II. He completed two years National Service before returning to the Cavendish in 1951 for his PhD in the Crystallography Laboratory, which was run by W.H.Taylor. These were the last years of Sir Lawrence Bragg's tenure as Cavendish Professor, and still very much a pioneering time for crystal structure determination before the advent of 4-circle diffractometers and computers. Mike worked on intermetallic compounds for his PhD (1955) and his first papers (1956) were on the structures of Al-rich ternary alloys of Al and Cu, with Fe, Co and Ni. 

W H Taylor had a long standing interest in the structures of silicate minerals and this must have been at the forefront of the mind of the then Professor of Mineralogy and Petrology, C.E.Tilley, when Mike was appointed to a University Demonstratorship. Another crystallographer from the Cavendish crystallography group, Peter Gay, was also appointed as a University Demonstrator in the Department at about the same time. Their joint publications from this period, either as Gay and Bown or Bown and Gay, reflect a close collaboration based on the use of single crystal X-ray diffraction to explore the complex structural relationships found in natural plagioclase feldspars. "The reciprocal lattice geometry of the plagioclase feldspar structures" (Bown and Gay, 1958, Zeit. Krist. 111, 1-14) is a definitive summary of the different structure types found in both natural and experimental samples. It has provided the language and starting point for almost all attempts to rationalise the properties and remarkable behaviour of one of the most important groups of rock forming minerals in the Earth's crust. Mike also started his work on pyroxenes, using X-ray diffraction to characterise orientation relationships in crystals with exsolution textures. He must have been influenced by wider interest at the time in rocks from the Skaergaard intrusion, East Greenland, leading to another classic work based on the study of 50 crystals: "An X-ray study of exsolution phenomena in the Skaergaard pyroxenes" (Bown and Gay, 1960, Min. Mag., 32, 379-388). These papers presaged a worldwide explosion of interest throughout the 1960's and 1970's in the microstructures of minerals, as observed and analysed using transmission electron microscopy, with another of Mike's colleagues in the Department, Desmond McConnell, leading the way.

After two years as a Demonstrator in the Dept. of Geology and Mineralogy in Oxford, Mike returned to Cambridge to take up a Lectureship in Mineralogy and Petrology. His interests in feldspars and pyroxenes continued and he was one of the first crystallographers to examine lunar samples famously brought to Cambridge from the USA by Stuart Agrell. Although only an abstract, another memorable paper from this period was: "Deerite, Howeite and Zussmanite, three new minerals from the Franciscan of the Laytonville District, Mendocino Co., California" (Agrell, Bown and McKie, 1965, Am Mineral 50, 278) - linking the names of six British mineralogists who are fondly remembered by all who knew them.

In the same year that Mike was appointed to a University Lectureship, 1961, he was elected to a Fellowship in Clare College. He served there as a Tutor from 1965 to 1971, then as the Director of Studies for Natural Sciences, an onerous task that he was renowned for doing meticulously. He acted on the full range of college committees until he retired in 1995, and was known as the person who asked the awkward question that others were avoiding. Mike continued to play an active role in college life for a further two decades.

Mike's life was cruelly disrupted by the untimely death of his wife, Hilary, in 1973. After that he devoted himself firstly to his family and secondly to his college and teaching. Eulogies delivered at his funeral affirmed him to have been a devoted father and grandfather, and a much loved colleague at Clare.

The annual report of the Department of Earth Sciences for 1995-96 notes that Mike "formally retired from his University Lectureship but immediately returned to continue teaching mineralogy". This reflects perfectly the period of his life that the generations of alumni will remember when, above all, he enjoyed the company of young people.

Over the years he lectured regularly to IA NST students in "Crystalline Materials" (the course shared with the Dept. of Materials Science and Metallurgy), as well as to first and second year geologists. His deep knowledge of crystallography was shared with smaller groups in specialist IB and part II courses (Crystalline State) - including a definitive course on crystal physics. His cravat provided a distinctive and trademark appearance, and his many jokes occasionally strayed from political correctness. Everyone who was taught by Mike will have their own memories, most of which will involve his knowledge, his humour and his sense of fun.

Mike served and interacted with the wider mineralogical community with typical modesty and selflessness as Secretary of the Mineralogical Society (1984-89) and as the first Secretary of the European Mineralogical Union (1988-92). He had two periods of sabbatical leave in the USA, firstly at Carbondale, Illinois (1965) and then at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Blacksburg, Virginia (1973) where he was remembered as a fine crystallographer and friend for many years afterwards. He also spent two periods of sabbatical leave teaching mineralogy at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. 

Part of the Sedgwick Club photograph, 1964, showing Mike (checked tie, back row) in the early days of his time as a Lecturer in the Department of Mineralogy and Petrology. (On his right is a youthful looking Chris Jeans).

Read more about Mike Bown's seminal work on the Single Crystal X-ray diffraction technique here.

John Smallwood (Earth Sciences 1990-97)

We're very sorry to report the news that John Smallwood died in a cycling accident close to his home on Saturday 17 April 2021.

The Department heard the news from John's friend and postgrad colleague, Rob Staples, who wrote: “'I received the tragic news as I sat in my office, where his beaming smile looks down on me, from a picture of him sitting on the Aletsch glacier, where he had just led my wife and me on another successful day of climbing – one of numerous days I have shared with John and his family over the last 30 years. John was a polymath – an accomplished academic, a capable musician, a phenomenal endurance athlete, a skilled mountaineer, a man of strong Christian faith, but, most importantly, a loving, generous and humble man; whenever you met John, you felt better for it. He was a wonderful, multi-faceted man, who enriched all our lives. He will be sadly missed and our thoughts go out to Suki and the boys.”

Those of us in the Earth Sciences Department who remember John echo Rob's sentiments. John was an undergraduate in the Department from 1990 to 1993 and then a postgraduate from 1993 to 1997, studying the Faeroe–Iceland Ridge under Professor Bob White. John later worked for Hess and other oil companies in the UK, Malaysia and Australia, but continued to publish (non-industry) academic papers. He won the Geological Society Young Explorer award in 2005.

At University, John led a busy life with a wide circle of friends in the Department, at Sidney Sussex and later Darwin Colleges, and elsewhere around the University. John had a passion for all the eclectic opportunities life throws up: not only did he excel academically, but he was also Sidney Sussex Boat Club captain and a member of a varsity-winning Cambridge University lightweight rowing crew. John also played in a jazz-band, led youth work in his church, and regularly visited the mountains that he loved so much.

John was an amazing endurance runner, whether that was fell running (winning occasional mountain marathons, and completing the renowned 'Bob Graham Round'), or flying to New York to push his disabled boss around the New York marathon in a standard NHS wheelchair in well under four hours! In 2014, he even represented Great Britain at the world veteran Duathlon championships.

John was well-loved, cheeky at times, almost always smiling, but certainly always caring, positive, and nurturing towards all those around him. John leaves his wife Suki, and three sons.