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Professor Eric Brown remembered

Tributes to his long contribution to UCL Geography

Professor Eric Brown remembered

News Item

The funeral of Professor Eric Brown took place at St Peter’s Church, Berkhamsted on Thursday 15 February.

Following active service as a World War 2 pilot, including reconnaissance flights in preparation for the D Day landings, Eric graduated at King's College, London and moved to Aberystwyth, where he carried out PhD research for his classic study, published in 1960, of The Relief and Drainage of Wales. He moved to UCL in 1950 and, with Bill Mead, remained a key figure in the development of UCL Geography until his retirement in 1987.

As well as occupying various UCL roles, including Dean of Students and Director of Alumnus Relations, he was, at various times President of the Institute of British Geographers, and Hon Secretary and Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society.

After retirement, Eric remained actively in touch with colleagues at UCL, in recent years through regular lunches, including one held in Berkhamsted in 2012 to celebrate his 90th. birthday.

Over 20 tributes received to Eric may be seen here.


Tributes to Professor Eric Brown

Professor Sir Ron Cooke
As you know, I have more to be grateful to Eric for than most: a man of immense energy, understanding, determination and ability to help others. He supervised more PHD students in British geography who went on to become professors than anyone else, I think.

Professor David Robinson
What a sad notice from Hugh.  I sent my old friend Eric an e-mail a month ago reminding him of the good times we enjoyed in Patagonia working for the Argentine government in the '70s.He truly was a good man, always frank, open to criticism, but loyal to those he trusted.

Professor Ken Gregory
So sorry to hear this news. So good that his final months were comfortable, and his many friends will be sad but much appreciate all that he did.

Professor Ray Harris
Eric was one of the great names of British geomorphology. I knew his name as an undergraduate and was thrilled to meet him in person at UCL. He was also a great UCL man. He knew in detail what was going on in the College, even in retirement, and understood the dynamics of UCL better than most. He is sorely missed.

Professor Rick Battarbee
Eric was my first year undergraduate tutor back in 1965.  I found him to be a bit stern and scary at the beginning but soon began to appreciate what a kind man he was.  Later on he became a much respected colleague, although we chatted more about rugby than physical geography when we met!

Professor John Salt
We will all have our memories. To me Eric was not only a much appreciated colleague but a great human being.

Professor Peter Haggett
Eric together with Bill and HCD made up the Interview Panel when I came up to UCL one Spring Morning in 1955 for Interview.  It was a day when "Doctor in the House" was being filmed in the Main Quadrangle and the main corridor was lined with red=blanketed hospital beds, On the results of that morning I came to UCL and the promise of £600 per annum allowed me to propose to Brenda. S.W.Wooldridge (who taught a joint course with Eric in Malet Place) inveigled him into the Kings College GEOIDS and we've happy memories of the two them singing away in the chorus of "Yeoman of the Guards" at the St Pancras Town Hall, So many happy memories come back.
As neighbours in North London we often rode the Piccadilly Line together and we occasionally 'baby sat' for Eric and Eileen in their Arnos Grove home.

Professor Jim Rose
(7 Jan) Eric taught me as an undergraduate and then we were much in contact through the main part of my teaching career.
He was a great stimulus to me and I liked him very much.

(20 Jan)
I’m afraid that I am not going to be able to attend Eric’s funeral… I have always had a great affection for Eric.  He taught me as an undergraduate (at Leicester – John Rice as on sabbatical) in my third year and really stimulated me into geomorphology/ Quaternary Science.  When I started at Birkbeck he was very supportive, and we kept in touch on an informal basis – I used to call in to see him on occasions, en route to my own office, as I walked past your department on my journey from Euston to Birkbeck Geography.  When I moved to Royal Holloway, I saw less of him, but in the later years we would have a chat at the RGS AGM.

Dr Rita Gardner
Sad news indeed - he will be missed by many former students, myself included.

Professor Ian Simmons
Thank you for the news about Eric.  He was my titular supervisor for my PhD. Eric was of course a big influence on the department even in the Darby days.  Given Bill Mead's longevity it looks as if some at least of that generation of staff had tough genes.  But it is a curious feeling to be 81 (next week) and your supervisor dying just now.

Dr Andrew Dawson
It was Eric and Bill who interviewed me in December 1959 for a place at UCL, in Professor Darby's room, in Foster Court. He was my tutor in my first year as an undergraduate, and surprised me by asking me at the first meeting to write an essay on "Holes", followed by one on "Dust" the next week. About that time he published "The Relief and Drainage of Wales", and subsequently, with Bill Mead, their regional geography of the "United States and Canada", a copy of which I still have. He taught geomorphology and map projections during my second year, and helped lead both the first- and second-year field classes, based on Swanage and Preston Montford, respectively.
That generation is now passing away. … These memories were refreshed recently. I was in London for a few days with my American wife. We walked through UCL, talking of Bentham - alas, not on show - and walked out into Malet Street through Foster Court.

Professor Michael Jones
Thank you for your e-mail with the sad news that Eric Brown has died. I remember him well from his lectures in geomorphology in 1963-64. He interviewed me along with Bill when I applied to do geography at UCL. When Eric became professor and held his inaugural lecture while I was doing my PhD, he borrowed a couple of my slides showing how people in the Finnish archipelago attempted to counteract land uplift by digging boat channels as the sounds between islands dried up. The inaugural lecture was of course on “Man as a geomorphological agent.” I did not have a lot of contact with him later, but occasionally met him when I visited the Geography Department in London. However, Bill always kept me updated with news. The last time I met Eric was at Bill’s memorial event at the RGS in 2015.

Professors Gerard and Marion Ward
We were sad to hear that Eric had died, but it was after a great life.   It was good to see all your tributes.  Eric was certainly a great colleague at UCL, but we are  also glad that we had the opportunity to see him here in Australia, and that we were able to show him something of this country.One thing we felt that we should mention is that in May and early June of 1945 Eric, then in the RAF coastal command, was flying large aircraft doing flights at very low altitude over the ocean off northern France and measuring the distance between the tops of successive waves.   They didn't know why at the time!   (On one occasion his aircraft actually touched the top of one wave!)It was only later, when someone from the met. office gave a talk at the Geography Department,  UCL, in the 1960s, that he discovered why!   The data they gathered enabled the experts to calculate the effect of the waves on the slope of the beaches below the level of the tides, and hence to determine when best to stage the invasion of Normandy.  In fact their data resulted in D-Day being postponed for at least a day!
His memory will stay with us all,

Professor Patrick Nunn
How thoughtful of you to send me notice of Eric’s passing.  I remember him with great affection, not least because he set me on a journey through life that has fulfilled me more than I ever imagined at the outset.

Professor Carolyn Roberts (formerly Carolyn Knight, graduated 1975)
I have some very fond memories of my time as a student at UCL, and of Eric standing on the top of Ivinghoe Beacon waving his arms and explaining that if it were not so foggy, we (on our first year field trip) would be able to see various planation surfaces. At the time I was not entirely convinced, and later research didn’t take me any closer to that view, but I certainly enjoyed both the debate and his other teaching. I also remember him talking avidly about the physical geography of Eastern Leicestershire, where I grew up.


Tributes from the Graduating ‘Class of‘65’

Jocelyn Dawson (nee Barker, 1962-1965)
Such sad news.  He had a huge influence on my geographical education, largely because he was a good teacher and a pleasant person. I had the good luck of having him as my tutor in my early days at UCL.

Dr Norman Perry (1962-1965/8)
Very sad news.  Eric had my full respect and affection. He had a good innings.

John Lang (1962-1965)
Many thanks for the sad news. The best of the teachers from our day by some distance.  Never forgotten.

Professor David Unwin (1962-1967)
An inspirational teacher who had a huge influence on my academic development and career, starting, I guess, with the first weekend’s walk across the North Downs and then the Aberystwyth field class.

Bill Needle (1962-1965 Sydney, Australia)
Thanks for the update – very sad new for us.

Dr Gillian Sheail (nee Maxted) (1962-67)
Like most of our year I first met Eric with Bill Mead at my interview. Eric was an inspirational geomorph teacher, and I will remember with gratitude the geomorph option lectures and seminars, a practical field week in the Wheeler Valley of NE Wales in 1964, and the two years when he was my M.Phil supervisor.

Professor Michael Bovis (1962-1967, Vanouver BC)
Although Eric was not my M. Phil supervisor he exerted a large influence on my undergraduate career. He was my first tutor (along with Jo Barker, John Beats and Roger Bunting).  I remember being quite overawed by him since he was quite stern and exacted high standards, but he was very fair.  I had dipped into The Relief and Drainage book before going to UCL and it indelibly imprinted in my mind the reality of erosion surfaces. They're everywhere, despite the naysayers!
He (and Bill Mead) also ignited my interest in North America (later reinforced when Les Heathcote was my tutor) and I set my mind on living there one day. The spectacular geomorphology was of course the big lure. I can remember my interview with Eric and Bill as if it were yesterday and still recall the important moment which I know convinced them that I would be a serious student. Eric was also instrumental in allowing me to switch to Geology subsidiary in Year 2. That totally changed my life for the better and set me on a course for a career in academic earth science. So, overall I have a very positive series of recollections with Eric. The last time I saw him (and HCD) was at the 1980 IGU in Tokyo.

James Cromwell (1962-1965 Frederickton NB)
Many thanks for the news of Prof. Brown's funeral. My thoughts will  be in remembrance of one of the two people who originally interviewed me for my application to UCL. I have many memories of this. Please express my condolences and my sincere appreciation for all he contributed to UCL Geography.


Professor Eric Brown, 1922-2018


Eric Herbert Brown died at Berkhamsted on 5 January 2018 at the age of 95. He taught geography at University College London for almost four decades, inspiring generations of undergraduates and mentoring dozens of research students. His doctoral work, published as The Relief and Drainage of Wales (1960) earned him the Back Award of the Royal Geographical Society and has become a classic work in physical geography. Eric was President of the Institute of British Geographers in 1978 and served as Honorary Secretary of the RGS from 1977 to 1987, and then Vice-President (1988-9). He edited Geography Yesterday and Tomorrow (1980) to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Society. As Honorary Secretary, he chaired the Research and Editorial Advisory Committees, and was a member of five other RGS committees ranging from finance and general purposes to medals and awards. His expertise was deployed as chair of the British Geomorphological Research Group (1971-2), of the Remote Sensing Steering Committee of the Natural Environment Research Council (1983-8), and of the British National Committee of Geography (1985-90).

The son of Samuel and Ada Brown, Eric was born on 8 December 1922 at Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. His exploration of the surrounding countryside, on foot or on bicycle, awakened his interest in geography, and a game of ‘brook jumping’ introduced him to the meandering of streams. Having excelled in his secondary education at King Edward VII Grammar School in Melton Mowbray, he was accepted to study geography at Kings College London. His first academic year was spent as an academic evacuee in Bristol, where he was tutored by Sidney Wooldridge who had a profound influence on his approach to geography and his subsequent career. From 1941 to 1945, Eric was a Royal Air Force pilot, after training at several bases in Britain and Canada. As a member of 517 Squadron, Coastal Command, he was involved in anti-U Boat operations over the Bay of Biscay and collected meteorological data on long patrols over the Atlantic to assist forecasting of weather in Europe. This contributed to the forecast from which General Eisenhower decided to postpone D-Day by 24 hours. Based in Pembrokeshire, Eric met a local farmer’s daughter named Eileen Reynolds whom he married in 1945. After the war, he resumed studies at the Kings College-London School of Economics Joint School of Geography and obtained a first class degree in 1947.

Following Wooldridge’s advice, Eric accepted an assistant lectureship at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where Emrys Bowen was professor. With support from geologist Alan Wood, Eric researched the geomorphology of Cardiganshire for his MSc (University of Wales, 1949), and started work on his doctoral project covering the whole of Wales (University of London, 1955). He made field observations throughout the Principality, usually travelling by motorbike if not on foot. His investigations impressed Professor Henry Clifford Darby, whom he had met at an IBG conference, and he was invited to join UCL. After advice from Wooldridge, Eric began teaching in London in January 1950. During the following decade, he worked under great pressure, having a young family, a doctorate to complete and papers to publish, as well as being ‘departmental tutor’ from 1954 to 1966, dealing with every aspect of administration in Darby’s rapidly growing department. Throughout his career, Eric’s main teaching responsibilities lay with geomorphology and North America, the latter popular course being shared with Bill Mead. Their joint book, The USA and Canada (1962), echoed experience gained from their attendance at the 17th International Geographical Congress at Washington in 1952 and during Eric’s exchange year at the University of Indiana (1953-4). As an instructor, Eric’s real strength showed in the field and in his encouragement of graduate students to forge their own ideas. His commitment to their progress and welfare is remembered with affection.

Beyond the British Isles, Eric gained field experience in Poland in the early 1960s of periglacial features and the techniques of geomorphological mapping developed there during the 1950s. This led to him making a significant contribution to all of the four meetings (one of only three such ‘regulars’) between November 1958 and January 1961 that began by proposing a Land Form Survey of Britain, and ended with the agreement to establish the British Geomorphological Research Group. The minutes of these meetings reveal Eric to have been a strong advocate for the Polish style of geomorphological mapping (of landforms) rather than the morphological mapping (of slope attributes) favoured by others; as well as the foundation of the BGRG (together with David Linton and Wooldridge). Eric was elected a member of the first BGRG Committee at the 1961 meeting, and for decades after was a regular at BGRG meetings. He also made two visits to Latin America in 1965-6, and participated in scientific investigations in Mato Grosso State (Brazil), and then gathered geomorphological evidence to advise the government of Argentina in its boundary dispute with Chile. As visiting professor at Monash University in 1971, he researched bushfires and other hazards in Australia, and travelled on to New Zealand and other Pacific islands. Six years later, he and four other British geographers investigated loess, karst and fluvial features in China, as guests of the Academia Sinica. In 1980, Eric led the United Kingdom delegation to the 19th International Geographical Congress in Japan. In 1987, he visited Tibet and remained greatly fascinated by its physical geography.

Back in London, Eric was instrumental in establishing the Remote Sensing Unit of the University of London at UCL. He assumed many additional responsibilities in the College as Dean of Students and Member of Council (1972-5), Chair of the Shenley Grounds Committee (1971-82) and Student Accommodation Committee (1982-8), and then Director of Alumni Relations (1989-91). In the wider University of London, he was a member of the Senate and the Academic Council (1981-8). Few people, if any, had a better understanding of how these institutions operated and his advice in this context was invaluable.

Eric retired in 1988 but retained many links with UCL and especially the Remote Sensing Unit. In 2002 his long and dedicated service to geography was marked by an honorary doctorate from the University of York, where his former student Sir Ron Cooke was vice-chancellor. Eric continued to be an active member of his local community in Berkhamsted, including its branch of the Geographical Association. He attended academic events at the House of the RGS and meetings of the Geographical Club. He deepened his appreciation of rugby football and fine wines. UCL Geography emeriti enjoyed regular ‘pub lunches’ until last year, when Eric would recall wartime experiences as if they were yesterday. A visit, with Bill Mead, to Gerry and Marion Ward in the south of France became an annual fixture.  After the death of Eileen in 1984, he lived alone for three decades, moving into a retirement home only for his final months. Professor Eric Brown is survived by his daughters, Jane and Megan, and by his grandchildren in whom he took great pride.


University College London

This obituary will appear in the Geographical Journal


Eric Brown

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