Alfred Thomas Grove, known universally as Dick, was born in Evesham, Worcestershire, on 8 April 1924. He died at home in Cambridge on 9 July 2023, aged 99. He had been a Fellow of the Society since 1947.
At the age of 17 in 1941 Dick entered St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, as an Exhibitioner to read geography. On arrival he joined the Cambridge University Air Squadron, where he learned to fly, and this led to him joining the RAF as an officer in the air training command, when his year was called up in 1942. Attaining the rank of Flight Lieutenant, he served until 1945. His flying experience included a stint at the Air Training Corps in Cambridge in 1942, before being posted to Calgary and Edmonton in Canada. At the age of 75 he was still able to recite his pre-flight and emergency checklists from memory and enormously enjoyed a 75th birthday present of a flight in a Harvard, during which he put on a 20-minute aerobatic display! It was while flying that Dick began to observe and record geographical features of the lands below, which were not visible at ground level.
The war ended as he was preparing to be reallocated to Fighter Command in the Far East. Dick returned to Cambridge and graduated with a First Class honours degree in 1947. During 1947-9 he went to Nigeria to report on soil erosion on behalf of the Colonial Office on the Jos Plateau and gullying in the Ibo country of the south eastern part of that country. He was made an Assistant District Officer. He showed that much of this erosion was of some antiquity. This was the beginning of a lifelong interest in the complex interplay of natural environmental change and human action. It was at this time, on a flight from Kaduna, that he first became intrigued by the evidence of former shorelines of Lake Chad, for some much wetter periods in the past, and in the corduroy-like patterns of fossil dune fields in northern Nigeria, left from past dry climatic periods. He was offered a permanent post in Nigeria but was persuaded to return to Cambridge University as a Demonstrator in the Department of Geography. He remained in Cambridge for the rest of his career, with the exception of brief spells in the University of Legon in what is now Ghana, and at UCLA. He was made a lecturer in 1954 and eventually became Senior Lecturer. He was elected a Fellow of Downing College in 1963, where he served as Tutor, Senior Tutor, Vice Master (during a difficult period of student unrest in the early 1970s) and Director of Studies in Geography. He was Director of the Centre for African Studies during 1980-6.
In 1950 and 1951 he joined field parties in the Jotunheimen of Norway that were led by the glacial geomorphologist, Vaughan Lewis. It was in Norway that he got to know Jean Clark, a Newnham graduate student, whom he subsequently married in 1954.
Dick travelled widely in Africa. In 1952 he returned to the Katsina area of Nigeria and was able to use air photographs to examine the old dune systems of the erg of Hausaland.
Dick participated in the longest ever hovercraft journey – a trip of around 8,000 km (5,000 miles) - by the British Trans-African Hovercraft Expedition, under the leadership of David Smithers. Between 15 October 1969 and 3 January 1970 they journeyed through eight West African countries in a Winchester class SRN6, travelling up the Senegal and down the Niger to its confluence with the Benue, and up that river to Lake Chad. During this expedition Dick collected water samples from the Senegal, Niger, Benue and Shari, which were subsequently analysed for the rivers’ dissolved and sediment loads.
In the 1960s and 1970s Dick also undertook numerous other African journeys, many with PhD students (Andrew Goudie, Gerry Dekker, Alayne Street and Nick Lancaster), to collect data on climate change, from extremely arid to wet conditions, which had taken place over the last 20,000 years. Early in 1980, as part of the commemoration of its 150th Anniversary, the Royal Geographical Society, jointly with the British Institute in Eastern Africa, sponsored an expedition to the area north-west of Lake Turkana. Dick Grove and Paul Harvey were members of this expedition, and their aim was to investigate evidence for changes in the level of Lake Turkana, which resulted from climatic changes, and to explore an ancient overflow channel which lies in the south-east corner of the Sudan.
Dick played a pivotal role in desert geomorphology through his fieldwork in areas like northern Nigeria, Tibesti, Ethiopia, and Botswana, through his prescient appreciation of the importance of climate change, and through stimulation of research by a generation of research students and their research students. In the 1950s there were no more than a handful of British geomorphologists and Quaternary scientists working on deserts. Dick’s influence helped to change that situation. His graduate students in turn had their own graduate students who followed in research areas that were largely based Dick’s ideas. In fact, there are now four generations of researchers who can trace their links back to him.
Dick made cutting-edge use of vertical air photographs of large tracts of Africa that became available after the Second World War. Air photography proved very useful to him in the recognition and mapping of relict dune fields in Nigeria, the Sudan, and in the Kalahari. Dick and his students, such as Andrew Warren, played a major role in establishing the significance of ancient sand seas (ergs) for establishing the existence of climate change on desert margins. They also demonstrated just how enormous climate change had been in tropical regions.
Dick worked on two ancient mega lakes in Africa: Chad and Mgkadikgadi. He also visited the Ethiopian lakes. His studies demonstrated that many basins had particularly high stands during the period that spanned the Late Glacial Maximum (LGM), between about 25,000 and 10,000 years ago. Working in the East African Rift Valley in Ethiopia, Dick also established that many high lake stands occurred in the early Holocene. He was one of the people who demolished the venerable and simplistic idea that glacial phases in lower latitudes were wet and that interglacials were dry.
In the 1970s, when international attention was focused on the African Sahel by the tragedy of famine in the drought years of the early 1970s, Dick’s understanding of long-term climate change – over centuries and millennia – enabled him to offer a science-based understanding of the field of ‘desertification’. His patient studies of Quaternary climatic change found a new and important audience in policy-makers. It is one that has only grown as awareness of the complex spatial interconnections between greenhouse gases, atmospheric circulation temperature and rainfall began to grow in the 1990s and 2000s. His work, and his commitment to fieldwork, remain important today, especially now that so much understanding of climate change derives from computer models.
Later in his career, Dick’s interests moved to a much wider interest in the regional environmental histories of Africa, the Mediterranean and Southern Europe. This was a period that saw the emergence of environmental history as a proper discipline. Beginning in 1988, Dick directed with N.S. Margaris the EEC-funded project ‘Desertification of the Aegean Islands’. This project introduced Dick to Oliver Rackham, initiating a collaboration and friendship that enriched the last 30 years of his research.
His classic study with Oliver Rackham, The Nature of Mediterranean Europe: An Ecological History (2001), focused on the complex interplay between the environment and the peoples of the Mediterranean from the earliest times to the present. Shortly after the publication of this ground-breaking book, his wife Jean died. Dick spent the next three years completing the book she left unfinished, Little Ice Ages, Ancient and Modern (two volumes), which was published in 2004.
Dick’s publishing career started in 1951 and extended over more than six decades. It comprised both books and papers. It included more than a dozen papers in the Geographical Journal.
Dick was the subject of two festschrift volumes. The first was a book edited by Bill Adams, Andrew Goudie and Tony Orme – The Physical Geography of Africa, Oxford University Press, 1996. This contains a wonderful appreciation of Dick Grove by Claudio Vita-Finzi. The second was a book edited by Max Martin, Vinita Damodaran, and Rohan D’Souza – Geography in Britain after World War II, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. This contains, inter alia, a chapter of reminiscences by Dick himself, together with a substantial bibliography.
Dick, though a somewhat diffident lecturer, was a very conscientious and stimulating tutor. He and Jean organised field trips for undergraduates, notably to the Valais of Switzerland. He was also a successful and supportive, rather than overly prescriptive, graduate supervisor. He supervised a number of graduate students who worked in Africa and often accompanied them on their fieldwork. These included: Claudio Vita-Finzi who pursued the alluvial history of the Mediterranean valleys, especially in Libya; Andrew Warren, who worked on the ancient dunes of Kordofan in Sudan; Celia Washbourn who investigated lake history in East Africa; Andrew Goudie, who studied calcrete in southern Africa; Mike Meadows who established the history of vegetation change in Malawi; Nick Lancaster who examined the geomorphology of the Kalahari; Alayne Street-Perrott who developed lake histories from the Ethiopian Rift; C.P.D. Harvey who wrote about the history of the Nile; Bill Adams, who studied the socio-economic impacts of the Bakolori Dam in Nigeria; Francine Hughes, who studied the ecological impacts of dams on floodplain forests in the Tana River in Kenya; Are Kolawole, who studied irrigation around lake Chad in Nigeria; Harriet Allen who worked on vegetation change in Greece; and Gloria Pungetti, who worked on Mediterranean wetlands.
Dick was a true geographer of very wide interests. His work was soundly based on the cores of the discipline – place, region, landscape, environment and humans. He was a modest individual with strong adherence to his Catholic faith, who had a profound influence on science and on individuals, who believed in fieldwork, was highly collegial, could read a landscape like no other person, and was an intrepid scientific explorer (not that he would brag about that).
I am grateful for inputs from Bill Adams, Tom Spencer, Heather Viles, Jenny Moody and Andrew Powell.
READ AN EXTENDED TRIBUTE TO DICK (via The Telegraph)
READ AN EXTENDED TRIBUTE TO DICK (via The Times)
Dick Grove (1924-2023)
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