skip to primary navigation skip to content

Department of Geography


Professor Richard John Chorley

Professor Richard John Chorley

  • Obituary by Professor Keith Richards, as printed (edited) in The Times newspaper

4 September 1927 - 12 May 2002

The late Professor Chorley

Richard Chorley, who died suddenly on 12th May, was a physical geographer who dominated the intellectual development of the study of landforms in the second half of the 20th century. Having graduated from Oxford, Dick (for this is how everyone knew him) went to Columbia University in 1952 to study under Arthur Strahler, where he encountered radical new ideas, and worked with equally innovative fellow students such as Stanley Schumm, Mark Melton and Marie Morisawa. After his return to the U.K., he was appointed to a post as Demonstrator in the Cambridge Department of Geography in 1958. He brought with him across the Atlantic ideas that underpinned the quantitative, process-based, functional, systems- and spatial-analytical revolution that has transformed the subject in the last 50 years.

In the first half of the 20th century, geomorphology was based on W M Davis's theoretical model of cyclic erosional development of landforms. Empirical applications of this model required rather speculative inference from erosional features in the landscape (denudation chronology). These stories received short shrift from a young geomorphologist whose American experiences had introduced him to mechanics, modelling, and functional equilibrium. He created a stir at a meeting of the Institute of British Geographers in 1959, when he delivered a paper entitled "The New Geomorphology", and in 1964 at the Royal Geographical Society he confronted the establishment paradigm, resulting in a barely-concealed rebuke from S W Wooldridge, a leading denudation chronologist (and a dominant individual in British geography at the time). Dick then went on to provide an elegant but systematic debunking of the Davisian scheme in a chapter in a book co-edited with his long-term friend and collaborator, Peter Haggett (Frontiers in Geographical Teaching). His methodological alternatives were presented in Models in Geography, Environmental Systems, in a lengthy chapter on quantitative methods in G H Dury's Essays in Geomorphology, and in Water, Earth and Man, in which he collaborated on applied hydrology with his wife Rosemary. Dick was invariably well ahead of his time; he introduced ideas of non-linear systems thinking in Physical Geography: a Systems Approach in 1971. His research and writing was always original, stimulating and scholarly, whether as detailed analysis of the soil physical and chemical properties influencing broad scale landform characteristics, or as a weighty multi-volume assessment of the History of the Study of Landforms (of which Volume 4 will now be published posthumously).

Dick's influence was felt especially through the ideas in his writing. But anyone who has enjoyed his lectures will know that he made excellent use of a wicked, almost Pythonesque sense of humour. Generations of students puzzled at the unexplained slides of W G Grace and Ian Botham (a homage to Somerset County Cricket Club), and will still recall the carefully contrived visual jokes about Davis. He was not a regular at conferences, and could never be regarded as a self-publicist; never mind the width, feel the quality. He did sustain his influence through his students, though, and was astute in the decision to disseminate new ideas through the teaching profession, via the Madingley lectures that led to Frontiers and Models. Although he only supervised a couple of dozen Ph.D. students, many have subsequently been influential in the subject, and all will remember him with great affection. His supervision style ("Everything all right, then?" on the Departmental stairs) would not win Quality Assurance Agency prizes today, but his students all recognised the unfailing support he provided, well beyond completion of their theses. As Head of Department, his daily morning walk around the building meant that he knew everything about the support staff, and they all knew his jokes - and had unwavering respect for him. He was someone for whom "personnel management" came naturally, and he would never have analysed the process of doing it. After his retirement in 1995, he remained a regular at coffee in the Department, and was invariably the centre of the laughter, as he regaled colleagues with tales of his latest efforts to prove that Sherlock Holmes had been a member of the beloved College, Sidney Sussex, of which he had been Vice Master. (This improbable project once led him to send a house brick purporting to come from the College to a Holmes society in Japan).

Dick Chorley served his subject, his College, his Department and his University with a remarkable combination of intellect, wit, modesty and good humour for about half-a-century. He will be greatly missed by his colleagues and friends around the world, and by Rosemary, Richard and Eleanor.