Archiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2007-01 > 1168298393

From: "Peter McCrae" <>
Subject: [W-OBITS] MCLAREN: Digby Mclaren 12/8/2004
Date: Mon, 8 Jan 2007 23:19:53 -0000

Digby McLaren
Last Updated: 12:40am GMT 15/12/2004

Digby McLaren, who has died aged 84, was an internationally respected head
of the Geological Survey of Canada but later became better known as a
crusader for political action to safeguard the planet's resources.

He believed that urgent solutions were needed to the social and moral
problems unleashed by technological developments following the Industrial
Revolution. Slipping into an earnest, apocalyptic vein that could easily be
dismissed as characteristically Canadian, he suggested a new code of ethics,
in which only actions that would benefit the environment should be regarded
as acceptable, and called for a curb in the use of energy from fossil fuels
as well as stabilisation of the world population.

Although there was evidence that the ozone layer was depleting and the
atmosphere was getting warmer, he was exasperated that the greatest hurdle
lay in overcoming public scepticism. Such ideas were not "crackpot" or the
"the starry-eyed ramblings of do-gooders", he declared: "Unless we realise
we are a piece of this planet we are doomed."

McLaren's hopes of seeing fossil fuels phased out in his lifetime were not
fulfilled. But in 1986 he played a leading role in initiating the
International Geosphere-Biosphere programme because of the threat of
climatic warming. He also edited two influential books, Resources and World
Development (1987) and Planet under Stress: The Challenge of Global Change

Digby Johns McLaren was born on December 11 1919, the son of James McLaren,
the Duke of Northumberland's land agent, who, as a keen amateur geologist,
kept notebooks of his findings throughout his life. Young Digby was educated
at Sedbergh, then went up to Queens' College, Cambridge. In 1939 he joined
the Royal Artillery, and over the next six years he took part in both the
Iraqi and Italian campaigns. A friendship with an Italian geologist led to
his first paper, on the geology of Florence, in Italian.

By the time McLaren returned to Cambridge in 1946, he had married Phyllis
Matkin, with whom he had three children. He completed the geological tripos,
achieving 1st Class honours in Part II, a marked contrast to his pre-war 2nd
Class in Part I when, he admitted, he had been "sowing his wild oats". In
1948 McLaren joined the Geological Survey of Canada, which helped him to
obtain his PhD at the University of Michigan with research on the results of
his early field seasons' work in Canada. On returning to Ottawa as the
survey's leading specialist in Devonian rocks and fossils, he was part of a
high-spirited group of Cambridge palaeontologists which was much given to
practical jokes, such as putting buckets of water on the tops of doors and
hiding rotten fish under drafting tables. This group's remit included dating
rocks and mapping the still largely uncharted Arctic.

In 1955 McLaren took part in the survey's Operation Franklin, the first
geological reconnaissance survey of the Arctic islands, then spent most
seasons in the Rocky Mountains, the Yukon Territory and the Mackenzie

After 12 years, McLaren was appointed the first director general of the
Geological Survey's Institute of Sedimentary and Petroleum Geology at
Calgary, where he established good relations with the burgeoning Alberta oil
and gas industry; then, after six months, he returned to Ottawa, where he
aided its research programme by streamlining the administration. In
encouraging work on the fossils preserved in the Burgess shale near Emerald
Lake, he demonstrated his talent for delegating responsibility so he could
concentrate on broad strategy.

In 1980 McLaren became senior science adviser to the Department of Energy,
Mines and Resources, until his retirement from government service four years
later. At the same time he was Professor of Geology at Ottawa University,
lecturing in the fluent French that he had acquired during pre-war stays
with families in France. During this period McLaren developed a keen
interest in the evidence of extinct fauna in the geological record. Against
the prevailing wisdom, he was one of those increasingly convinced that mass
extinctions could have been caused through global cataclysm, such as
meteorite impact or a widespread volcanic eruption. McLaren published
several papers on the subject, in which he also pointed to the analogous
situation, termed "nuclear winter", that might arise from nuclear war or a
similar man-made disaster.

A keen orchid grower, McLaren was appointed FRS in 1967 and OC in 1987. He
was President of the Royal Society of Canada from 1987 to 1990, when he
enhanced both its finances and its public image, and also had the rare
distinction, for a non-American, of being President of the Geological
Society of America.

After his wife's death in 2003, he was in poor health and his eyesight was
failing. But he made a final visit to see relations in England, and made a
speech at a meeting of the International Geological Union in Florence, where
the Digby McLaren Medal of the International Commission in Stratigraphy was
inaugurated in August.

Digby McLaren, who died on December 8, was a formidable protagonist for any
cause that he espoused, for he was always extremely well-briefed and could
be quick in delivery of scathing repartee. Although his prejudices could be
strong, he was a kindly person with a deep interest in people, holding
firmly to his belief that "the Kingdom of Heaven is on Earth."

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