This electronic interview is taken from the INHIGEO (International Commission on the History of Geological Sciences) Newsletter No. 33 for 2000. The original footnotes have been incorporated in the text in blue. Original page numbers are shown in red.
Richard Howarth questions have a pink background.
Hugh Torrens' replies are on a pale green background

Interview with Professor Hugh S. Torrens

E-mail 'interview' with Professor Hugh S. Torrens, October 2000-January 2001

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It had originally been intended to tape this interview while the participants (and the Newsletter editor) were at the IGC (International Geological Congress) in Rio. However, last-minute malfunctioning of the tape-recorder prompted us to undertake this experiment. We hope that the results will encourage similar 'interviews' in which e-mail overcomes the necessity of the participants to be in the same place at the same time, and that any lack of spontaneity is made up for by the presence of some, hopefully useful, footnotes.

Richard Howarth

Hugh, may I first thank you for agreeing to take part in this first email interview experiment for the INHIGEO Newsletter. I'd like to begin by asking you to tell me something of your family background.

Hugh Torrens

My parents were people of much wisdom. My father was Irish (a Trinity College Dublin graduate in medicine and dental science) who came as a refugee to England in the 1920s and settled in Bournemouth, in the south of England. Here he practised as a dentist, becoming a hospital consultant who pioneered facial reconstruction work (his worst cases were from cricket balls in eye sockets!). He was also involved in plastic surgery and anaesthesia in and after the Second World War. My mother was a librarian in Bournemouth. When my father retired, he re-discovered a great interest in family history and published a number of books on comparative religion and the occult. So a love of books was instilled into me early.
Was it this background that led to your first interest in geology?
No! This arose from my discovery in about 1952 of a fine internal flint mold of a rust-coloured Micraster in gravels near where I then lived, at Wick near Christchurch. Hampshire. This so intrigued Chris Pellant - a later student of mine - that it was illustrated in his Pan Book of Rocks, Minerals and Fossils (1990. p. 140). I then went with my privileged background to a public' school at Sherborne, Dorset. This was a school sadly both traditional and conformist in outlook. But there I soon met a remarkable retired clergyman-geologist, Joseph Fowler (1872-1958), who took me under his wing and walked me off my teenage feet in his eighties! He showed me how rich the area was in fossils and I became an enthusiastic collector. Such youthful enthusiasms are wonderfully revealed by Rene Cutforth in his book Order to View (1969). But in Cutforth's case 'London experts' soon arrived to declare there was nothing new among all his Leicestershire fossil finds. My experience was miraculously different.

In 1956, aged 15, I found a small half ammonite in a thin rock unit. which had never before yielded a single ammonite. At first W.J. Arkell (1904-1958) said it must only have fallen downhill from a higher, and known, horizon. But I knew different. For a start there was insufficient hill. Driven by schoolboy enthusiasms, I cycled out as often as possible to collect all the rock from that luckily thin bed. lying around its pipe-line outcrop. Months later I recognised, after work with a toothbrush, the fossil's other half in cross-section; embedded in matrix, which proved I was right and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, wrong. His letter of apology for assuming that everything in science was already known made me want to become a geologist. So l joined the Geologists' Association and started donating fossils to public museums. The ammonite (Delecticeras sp.) is: Sedgwick Museum No. J46367.

So, presumably, your next step was to enrol for a geology degree?
Not quite! I rebelled at school, wanting (but failing!) for example to study modern - useful - languages (Russian and German) rather than the dead ones (Latin and Greek) I felt so unmotivated towards. Things came to a head in 1957-58. when I decided to attempt a fourth A-level, in Geology, a subject the school did not offer and said it could not teach. Such a juvenile decision did not go down well, but in 1959 I passed, entirely self-taught. The first coloured geological map I ever saw was, l recall, one produced during these exams!

Only then did start to think about university. My kind friends at the Natural History Museum, London, who were now identifying my better finds for me (in particular LR. Cox and H.D. Thomas) suggested I apply to Oxford and wrote in support. I had to sit the scholarship exam as there were so few places for geology then. This got me in and l spent a very happy three years at Oxford (University College) l959 - 62, but too often getting sidetracked into journalism. old cars, and student drama.

Such perseverance certainly deserved just rewards! So your next step was your PhD?
I was quite uncertain what to do next until my adequate degree result (although others facing problems over Oxford's bizarre system of not dividing its second class degrees into upper and lower divisions - unlike all other English universities - were dissuaded from postgraduate study). I had got deep into Middle Jurassic stratigraphy at school and decided to tackle this at PhD level. I had had enough of Oxford's 'airs and graces' and. having already been in touch with Peter Sylvester-Bradley (1913- 1978) at school. now wrote and asked him if he would supervise me. He at first thought l was the son of the 1956 letter writer!

So I went to Leicester University and had the best three/four years of my life there under an inspirational man who discovered what people were capable of and then left them to their own devices, except to give endless encouragement. He thought nothing was impossible and in 1963 supported the crazy idea that l and two non-geologist friends go and explore the Middle Jurassic of the Elburz Mountains in Persia. I ended up at outcrops rich beyond my so far English fantasies - one right beside Marco Polo's Silk Road to China. I also made early contact with three ammonite friends Wolfgang Hahn (Germany), Juli Stephanov (Bulgaria) and Carlo Sturani (Italy). It was a great shock a few years later when I had become the only survivor, all three having been killed (in a car crash. dam disaster. and quarry accident). But Peter and they had inspired me and given me a taste for foreign places and languages and a loathing of insularity.

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Life after Elburz must have seemed a bit dull. What influenced your next career move?
Peter (for whom nothing was impossible) got me a post-doctoral fellowship (1965-1967) working on Tethyan Mesozoic limestones in Sicily with Hugh Jenkyns (now at Oxford). This was before I had a PhD (1966)! So the first year was spent frantically finishing one (the PhD), starting the other (the Fellowship), and learning Sicilian from quarrymen. I thought it was Italian (which made for some embarrassing moments at cocktail parties!) Here l saw real kindness from wonderful - but I felt thwarted - people; fighting climate, Pope, and the Mafia.

By 1967 it was somehow inevitable I would stay an academic, and a lecturing job at Leicester was to be mine on a plate (Peter assured me), until at interview he persuaded (as only he could) the committee they should afford a much more senior position (which rightly went to John Hudson). Peter had meanwhile encouraged me to apply for other jobs and was a fan of the Keele 'vision' (later expensive nightmare) with its Foundation Year and Joint Honours degrees, forcing all students across the Two Cultures. So when offered a lectureship there to replace Tom Burnaby, off I went. Peter thought I would be 'ideal for Keele' (there's a new slogan!) with interests in both stratigraphy and palaeontology and, by then, also in history of science and technology.

What was it that triggered your interest in the history of geology? I notice from your bibliography that your publications in this field (as well as in the history of technology) seem to have begun suddenly, with eight contributions in 1974, and have continued regularly since.
An interesting question! I long wondered if it was merely a 'male menopausal thing' (age 34!). When old scientists get bored they take an amateur interest in history, since they are now history, etc. This must have been what a former scientist Vice Chancellor at Keele thought (who referred to history as my hobby and made me feel guilty)! Martin Rudwick faced similar problems when he moved professionally from geology to history. See: Journal of the Geological Society, 1989, 146. 202. But my early interest in history (or my stupidity!) is proven by my pie-Oxford purchase of Lhwyd's (1760) Lithophylacii Britannici (2 guineas) and my Oxford purchase of Plot's (1677) Oxfordshire (6 pounds in a week - I went very hungry).See also: Archives of Natural History, 2000, 27, 20. My interest in the history of technology was inspired by the purchase of a 1929 Alvis sports car (for £100 in 1960). It was so wonderfully made, and so much more fun to drive than ghastly modern cars. that I joined the Vintage Sports Car Club and met - and read a lot of - Tom (L.T.C.) Rolt.

At an Oslo lecture a few years ago, I met my old friend David Bruton, who was a PhD student with me. He reminded me that I was then as equally fascinated in the past of the earth as with the people who had studied it. During my PhD. I certainly realised that some of the rocks I worked on, like the Fuller's Earth Rock, had never been studied since the days of William Smith, who would have had much better opportunities than me because there were then so many more exposures available.

As to why I started publishing history from 1974, this had several causes. First, I had got involved trying to improve the often terrible condition of geological collections found in too many of our provincial museums. Brian Page and I started the Geological Curators' Group Newsletter/Journal. This demanded historical investigation of collections and their fates. Second, with the deaths of my three friends (Stephanov 1966, Hahn 1972, Sturani 1975) I felt lonely as an ammonitologist and history may have became a safe refuge. I had started having problems with travel grants, and perhaps. as Derek Ager claimed, When reviewing a volume I had contributed to, in Geological Magazine, 1985, I 22, p, 214. this move over to history was for the same reason why there was more interest in history of geology in former East Europe: 'because there are so many more geologists in the East unable to travel and looking for things to do'? Most important, in 1970 I married Shirley Morgan, a kind, tolerant, and generous person, which perhaps encouraged me to rush around less?

I find it difficult to believe that someone without an excellent grasp of the history of his subject would have recognised the significance of either Plot or Lhwyd (A lucky man!) when casually browsing in an antiquarian bookshop. Do you think that the seeds of your interest might have been planted during your time at Sherborne?
Another very interesting question! Politicians here now tell us 'no one forgets a good teacher' but I cannot now recall being taught history at school, although I certainly was. Cramming for 4 A/S-levels must have pushed it out of mind. My mother still has my old school reports somewhere, so I could (as a historian) still find out. I recall the Lhwyd was purchased from a Brighton bookseller's catalogue which my father showed me. He was crucial to my education!

But I'm sure that Sherbone as a place also had a lot to do with it. When researching S.S. [Sydney Savory] Buckman (1860-1929)'s geological career at this school. l discovered that Alfred North Whitehead (18614947), O.M., etc, had been his contemporary - Whitehead published posthumously in 1948 a wonderful essay The Education of an Englishman Essays in Science and Philosophy, London 1948. 26-33. (T he essay first appeared in a periodical back in the twenties.) in which he wrote: 'we had plenty of evidence [at Sherborne] that things had been going on for a long time. It never entered into anybody's mind to regard 6,000 years seriously as the age of mankind - not because we took up with revolutionary ideas [Buckman's Darwinian father did!] but because our continuity with nature was a patent, visible fact, and had been so since the days of Saint Aldhelm [A.D. 640? to 709!]. There were incredible quantifies of fossils about, more fossils than stones - or rather the stones were built out of fossils welded together'. I felt much the same of the historical continuity of these wonderful surroundings.

Having heard you lecture on many occasions, I would imagine that your lectures to undergraduates at Keele must have been popular, even if palaeontology and non-seismic stratigraphy now seem to be viewed (by some) as rather old-fashioned skills, they would still seem to be still necessary in a well-balanced geology curricum. How would you describe your career at Keele?
As a teacher, mixed! Teaching must be so many things, it is difficult to generalise. I may have on occasion stimulated or motivated students, but I was never patient. We have, or had, two brilliantly patient teachers in my department over the years, and so I could see the vital importance of this aspect in teaching. On the other hand, Keele gave me a great chance - which I took - to teach a lot of students (subsidiary, sessional, Foundation Year) who'd never been exposed to geology before. I enjoyed this challenge a lot, until our Foundation Year was so suddenly abandoned. Any more specialised teaching has had to respond too much to new fads for me to feel optimistic. I doubt the 'explanatory power' of global sequence stratigraphy, and ammonitology (my other field) is clearly now only a dead science.I was today sent a Nigerian ammonite image to identify and realised such skills are now hardly being taught in this country.Page 36

The major problem with teaching is the real difficulty of assessing good or bad teachers in our obsessively assessed 'system'. I have been 'peer reviewed' and the returns duly filed away, and I have seen endless student appraisals of my teaching but these were too often signed by 'Micky Mouse' or 'Donald Duck' for me to trust them. Students were being asked to appraise too often and this devalued the whole operation. On top of this, as Anon. noted. 'for every person wishing to teach, there are thirty not wanting to be taught'. There seems no way in which to get reliable, objective feedback of one's strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. Much worse. I never felt that anyone really thought that teaching at university was important. Research was all. Whenever I feel angry about this, I re-read Gustav Holst on teachingIn: The Music of Gustav Holst. 1968. 150-155. (written in response to George Bernard Shaw's 'those who can, do. Those who can't, teach), and now that l no longer teach, I also re-read Carnegie's thoughts on the pittances then paid to university teachers.A. Carnegie. Autobiography, 1920, 268.. He was so angry, he endowed a $15 m pension fund to help 'aged university professors' in 1905, but he could instead re-read the grateful letters he got sent.

Were you able to lecture on the history of geology, or were you confined to a regime of paleostratigraphy?
I was employed at Keele as a stratigrapher/ palaeontologist and was asked to cover the Mesozoic and Cenozoic and principles of stratigraphy, in which I got progressively more interested as the methodologies of stratigraphy widened to include 'event' and 'sequence' stratigraphy, etc. In the field of palaeontology I was busy lecturing on all the Mollusca and Brachiopods and Corals and many other more introductory topics concerning fossils.

I was never able to give any formal series of lectures on history at Keele, despite the oft-claimed interdisciplinary focus of my university. It was not until I went to teach in California for a well-remembered semester in the spring of 1996 that I was able to develop a focused set of lectures on both the history of geology and, more especially, the history of technology (which l have always felt was, and is now, even more seriously under-represented in Britain). l have let off some steam on this last topic in a forthcoming piece.'Some Thoughts on the History of Technology and its Current Condition in Britain'. History of Technotogy. 200l, 22.

How would you describe the evolution of your research over the years?
My research started off by trying to get my PhD thesis on Bathonian stratigraphy into print. Most of it was. and updates of the remainder are deposited at Oxford University or Bristol City museums. But by the 1980s such biostratigraphy was starting to be made rather redundant by the 'new technologies' of 'sequence' and 'event' stratigraphy and I could see new problems on the horizon starting to appear, in part from problems of finding funds to do such 'dead' science. On top of this, between 1966 and 1975 my three closest ammonitoiogical friends had all been killed, as I mentioned earlier. These were some of the reasons why I swung more over to first, the history of museums and then, to the history of geology.

In 1981 came the first inklings of the impending disaster of 'research assessment'. 1 was 'returned' in the first two of these as a scientist (being expected to have written papers); then in the last one (1996), l was 'returned', without discussion, as a historian. This meant I was given a week's notice that I should have been writing books instead of papers!On the books versus papers crisis, see the critic of sequence stratigraphy. Andrew Miall in: Geoscience Canada, 25. 183-184

Despite such lunacies, or that such assessments can only allow each person to be returned to one 'unit of assessment' (alias subject), l found that the old excitements of finding new faunas in rocks were matched by those of finding new documents in archives. The two skills did not seem all that far apart either and so l well saw how other geologists, like Martin Rudwick, had become such superb historians. I recall three particular historical 'Eureka moments' of excitement.

The first was uncovering Robert Townson (1762-1827)'s illegitimate origins. He was born and baptised four years before his parents married and all the genealogists said this was impossible. But documents in the House of Lords Record Office proved it, and even provided a probable eye-witness account of his conception in support! The second was when I was trying to discover where S.S. Buckman had been a student in Germany. This was wrongly in print as Dresden, but a chance purchase in a Stoke-on-Trent bookshop (a city not renowned for them) in January 1983 (for £0.50) proved it had been Wiesbaden. The third was when I struggled long and hard to uncover the origins of Jeremiah Cruse, William Smith's land-surveying partner. This proved such an extraordinary, and serendipitous, story that I wrote it up.The Cruse family of Bath. Avon and Warminster, Wiltshire: A family's Origin and an Incredible (Co-incidence, Journal of the Bristol and Avon Family History Society. 1984. 34. 14-15

Above all, this excitement of the research chase has never left me, although I do now start to see what a really boring struggle getting some of it into print can be, and has been.

During your career. you have held lecturing positions on the history of geology in Canada, Hungary, and the USA, and. indeed, have just received a major award from GSA for your work in this field. In your excellent 1988 paper. 'Hawking history - a vital future for geology's past'Modern Geology, 1988, 13, 83-93 you wrote that there was a danger that the history of geology 'would subduct between the drifting Page 37 continents of science and the humanities', and bemoaned the lack of attention paid to the history of applied geology. More recently, Jim Bennett has recently written: 'museums are one of our most visible and accessible resources for influencing public attitudes to science and its history [but] they have not been spared the more baleful outcomes of the narrow vision of 'public understanding'.' From the President, BSHS Newsletter, 2000, No. 63 (October), 7-9. (Dr Bennett is currently President of the British Society for the History of Science and Curator of the History of Science Museum, located in the Old Ashmolean Building in Oxford.) Events (even, latterly, in your own career) seem to have born out your early, somewhat gloomy, prediction. To what do you attribute the apparently more receptive attitude to the history of science (and the history of geology in particular) in North America, compared to the UK? How can we interest more geologists (especially younger ones) in the history of their own subject-again, in your 'Hawking History' paper, you quoted David Knight as saying that 'many scientists find history irrelevant to their activities and fear that students will be muddled by being introduced to obsolete science'. Where do you think the root of this problem lies - is it a peculiarly British one? What, if anything, do you think could be done (e.g. by INHIGEO and national organisations) to try to rectify the present situation?
This is the major problem and I see no easy solutions. My first thought is that it is hard to separate one's personal experiences and one's own national, cultural attitudes from those in vogue elsewhere. On the personal front, my official retirement party was held yesterday (19/12/2000) and it was a most cheering event. But it could hide the fact that my former university had not had the slightest interest in what I had been doing in the history of science and technology. Then there are the quite different attitudes to the history of science across the 'Two Cultures' divide. I have personally found that scientists (probably because I am one) were always slightly more interested in this than mainstream historians. This is a paradox. I spoke about such paradoxes at Reno, at the recent GSA meeting, and I'd like to repeat some of what I wrote there.'See: GSA Today, February, 2001.

Academic interest in the history of geology is minimal back home in the UK (just as no sane person plays cricket in Reno!). The all-pervading bureaucracy in our universities demands only 'Impact Factors' (to three decimal places!) and 'Research Quality Assessment' of 'Groups'. 'One-Person Groups' are as undesirable as attempts to be both scientist and historian, which supposedly 'diminish' both. Those who try become marginal, moving in more than one world, but not at home in, or of interest to, either. I hoped for better at my former university, set up in 1949 to encourage breadth in education, through its Joint Honours Degree programmes (why aren't its joint honours graduates equally diminished?) and -its now abandoned - Foundation Year. But that university demonstrated its indifference to the history of science by the secret sale of its precious Turner Collection of rare books in 1998.See: Physics Today, April, 1999, 64.

This identifies a first problem, at least in Britain. Good work in science departments there can only be conceived by its many managers if it is done in 'research groups'. No single historian can qualify.For the dangers of individuals not qualifying for Research Group status, see: Antony Wyatt's remarkable recent History of Geology at Aberystwylh University: A Turbid Tale, published in 2000 by himself in California, well away from the Vice-Chancellorial lawyers!

But the American Henry Ford was right to urge the importance of such history, as opposed to the history of religion or diplomacy, etc. Science and technology (whether internet, television, laser, motor car, aeroplane or finding more oil for these last two) have had much the greater influence. But how we urge such history, and its fascinations, whether in the academy or on geologists (who should be the most historical of scientists), remain intractable problems. The Anglo-Lebanese-Brazilian Peter Medawar was equally right to assertPluto's Republic, 1984, 273. that 'the history of science bores most scientists stiff'. There are other geographical paradoxes. I think such history is frowned upon in Britain partly because we are 'an old country'.The title of Patrick Wright's stimulating 1985 book was On Living in an Old Country. We have simply too much history, which can be all too easily sanitised to show how 'happy' the lives of its former coal miners were etc. The 'Public Understanding of Science' pressure group here is both too weak, and history too marginal to it, to help us.

One of the reasons I think this subject is better supported in North America is that these are new countries, more anxious to uncover their ancestries. We are anxious to forget it. In support of this, according to a 1995 Roper poll for the American TV 'History Channel', the item of greatest interest to the public [there] is the History of Science and Technology. This is certainly not the situation here. But we have to keep trying to understand such different perceptions. If we are to improve things here we have first to try and teach some geology through its history and we also have to urge more popular, but still rigorous, history books like Cherry Lewis's on Arthur Holmes.The Dating Game: One Man 's Search for the Age of the Earth, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000 (see p. 000).

Hugh, it's been a pleasure carrying out this e-mail 'interview' and I've very much looked forward to receiving each instalment of your replies. I really appreciate very much your patience in participating in this experiment, corresponding over the last few months, the success of which I am sure will be evident to readers, and I hope that it will encourage similar ventures elsewhere.

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