Brian Sissons, scientist

Brian Sissons

Brian Sissons, who has died at 91, was an inspirational earth scientist whose work led to an improved understanding of the effect of the last ice age on the landscapes of northern Britain.

One of the foremost scientific minds of his time, his life’s work had begun in Batley, where his father was headmaster of Staincliffe Junior School and at whose Grammar School he was taught geography and an interest in geomorphology, the study of the earth’s landforms, took hold.

After service in the Royal Navy from 1944-7, mainly in the Far East, he entered St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, where he gained a First Class Honours degree in Geography in 1950 and a PhD in 1953.

He was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Edinburgh in 1953, and many a former undergraduate will remember his inspiring lectures in physical geography.

He began his research by studying the landscape of south west Yorkshire, and was able to show how the river systems and the valley-side slopes had developed over time.

Later, he studied the results of changes in the landscape of northern England and Scotland as it began to emerge from the grip of the last glaciers and ice caps some 20,000 years ago. In doing so, he revised existing theories and interpretations, and laid benchmarks for the study of the decay of the ice of that time worldwide.

A particular contribution was his mapping of the limits of the last advance of ice in Scotland and northern England, the “Loch Lomond Readvance”, an event which took place between 12,900 and 11,700 years ago. Arising from his study of former Loch Lomond Readvance glaciers, he re-examined the “parallel roads” of Glen Roy, probably the most famous former glacier-dammed lake shorelines in the world. His most recent papers on Glen Roy, written at the age of 90, reflected a consuming interest in earth science well into old age.

A feature of his work was an almost obsessive attention to detail and accuracy. His detailed survey and borehole investigations fostered a better understanding for engineers of foundation conditions in parts of central Scotland. The boreholes he made with some of his research students in the Forth valley were instrumental in revealing the first evidence for the great tsunami on British coasts of 8,200 years ago, a discovery which later led to an increased interest in such phenomena, before the recent tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan.

He published more than 90 scientific papers and two books, which remain benchmarks in the field today. His research was recognised by the award of a DSc from the University of Edinburgh, the Clough Medal of the Edinburgh Geological Society, the Research Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, the Back Award of the Royal Geographical Society, and an honorary membership of the Quaternary Research Association.

He was proud of his Yorkshire roots, and followed test matches with avid interest, especially when Yorkshire players were involved.

He married his wife Betty, who was from Dewsbury, in 1950, and they had two children, Jane and Andrew. He is survived by Jane, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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