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Department of Geography


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

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

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).

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.