Chorley, Richard J

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Dick Chorley


Richard John Chorley, geographer: born Minehead, Somerset 4 September 1927; Instructor in Geography, Columbia University 1952-54; Instructor in Geology, Brown University 1954-57; Demonstrator in Geography, Cambridge University 1958-62, Lecturer 1962-70, Reader 1970-74, Professor 1974-94 (Emeritus); Fellow, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge 1962-94 (Emeritus), Vice-Master 1990-93; married 1965 Rosemary More (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 12 May 2002.


Richard (Dick) John Chorley was a dominating scholar and a great advocate for geography, hydrology and geomorphology. His prodigious output and seminal insights made him tower over his research field, placing British geomorphology for several decades at the very centre of the world stage.

Geomorphology - the study of the Earth's surface shape and form and the processes which mould its evolution - had originally been studied by Chorley as an undergraduate at the School of Geography at Oxford, where he went up to Exeter College after service with the Royal Engineers. Here he was greatly influenced by the iconoclastic views of R.P. Beckinsale, who advised Chorley to go on to graduate study in the United States.

This transatlantic move in 1951 as a Fulbright Scholar proved to be critical, for Chorley found himself at Columbia to be part of a firecracker group of graduate students- including Stanley Schumm and Mark Melton- working under A.N. Strahler in the Geology Department. Strahler was then beginning to explore a revolutionary, quantitative approach to landform evolution: the fuse he lit was to lead to later explosions around the world and most especially at Cambridge.

For Chorley's academic career at Columbia and subsequently Brown University was to be interrupted by the need to return to Britain for family reasons. Appointed a Demonstrator at Cambridge in 1957, he proceeded to move rapidly up the university hierarchy with a Readership in 1970 and "ad hominem" chair in 1974. Cambridge provided the launching pad for Chorley's revolutionary ideas. Rejecting the prevailing paradigm of the Davisian cycles of erosion, he sought to replace these with a quantitative model-based paradigm with an emphasis on General Systems Theory and numerical modelling.

Cambridge already had a strong group in physical geography and colleagues such as W.V. Lewis and D.R. Stoddart encouraged Chorley's ideas, while Alfred Steers as Head of Department provided the benign environment in which his experiments could take place. To a prodigious output of scientific papers, Chorley was soon to add six volumes in physical geography that were to codify his approach and ask new questions about earth surface processes and the ways they can be studied. Central to these was the concept of system dynamics, and "Physical Geography: a systems approach" (1971) and "Environmental systems" (1978) were to influence a generation of young scholars.

Chorley's studies ranged into climatology and hydrology. He cooperated with the Colorado meteorologist, Roger Barry, on a basic text, "Atmosphere, Weather and Climate" (1968), now in its eighth edition. He was generous in sharing his ideas, and most of the volumes were jointly authored or edited, including "Water, Earth and Man"(1969). In this he worked with his wife, Rosemary More, encouraging her to bring her hydrological insights from work at Imperial College into his overarching systems framework.

In addition to his contemporary scientific work, Chorley launched in 1964 the first of a series of magisterial volumes on "The History of the Study of Landforms". Two further volumes were published in 1973 and 1991 and at the time of Chorley's death, Volume 4 was nearing completion. Together they form a unique and outstanding record of the evolution of geomorphology as a scientific discipline.

If Chorley had chosen to confine himself just to physical geography, his own research field, his influence would have been dominant. But he saw the need to widen his concern to embrace the need for change in geography as a whole. He did this in two ways. The first was through a series of annual summer conferences held at Madingley Hall near Cambridge, where the lectures given formed the basis of a series of volumes (notably "Models in Geography", 1967) which were to influence the whole discipline. The second was by founding an annual series, "Progress in Geography", later converted into two influential quarterly journals, in which changes over the whole discipline could be recorded and assessed.

While all the above would secure Richard Chorley's place in the scholarly pantheon, it only partly explains his huge influence. For along with his formidable scholarly equipment, he was blessed with a warmth of temperament which made him loved as well as respected. Undergraduates will remember him for outstanding teaching, a dominating classroom presence, and those embroidered stories that are still being told and retold around the world. Research students, now holding key chairs in Britain and overseas, will recall a supervisor who encouraged them to ask new questions and provided lifetime support. His colleagues will recall a man who was the best of company, sensitive, encouraging, occasionally outrageous, who, despite his legendary hard work, always found time to help and to explain.

Richard Chorley was proud of his college connections. He was a Fellow of Sidney Sussex for forty years and its Vice-Master, 1990-93. At heart he remained a West Country man, with deep family roots in the Exmoor area, and a soft burr that a lifetime in Oxford and Cambridge never eradicated. He was a product of a local primary school and Minehead Grammar School, and it was typical of his loyalty that he continued to cherish and support local institutions as wide-ranging as cider-orchard customs, the county cricket team and the West Somerset Railway. Although loaded with most of the honours which an academic life allows (he held the highest honours from professional societies on both sides of the Atlantic, an honorary degree from Bristol, and an outstanding Festschrift), he was essentially a modest man and later turned aside many marks of recognition which would have been eagerly grasped by most colleagues.

Rarely have such huge talents coincided with such warm good humour and such gentle self-effacement. In 40 years of collaboration together, the only matter I can ever remember disputing with him was the order of our names on joint publications: even when he had supplied all the key ideas and carried by far the heavier load, he still wanted always to be placed last. He saw his whole life as a fortunate one and he was content that both his public life and his private family life had been fully and equally blessed. Both were marvellously diffused with what John Betjeman called "the bonus of laughter".

Peter Haggett

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Main Source: Peter Haggett Obituary Keith Richards Obituary