An Extraordinary, Diverse and Rewarding Career

In this edition, GEO ExPro Magazine celebrates Dr. Joe McCall, a man whose life summarises the sense of adventure, excitement and love of life which epitomises the geologist – and who has just been recognised with a Distinguished Service Award from the Geological Society of London.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, No. 1 - 2011


Photo: Jane Whaley “If I had my life again, I’d still be a geologist,” declares Dr. Joe McCall. And having spent 65 of his 90 years as one, he should know!  

But Joe did not initially realise that geology was to be his calling. Born in 1920, the last of seven children (a prolific family - his mother was one of 15 and his grandfather, who was Prime Minister Disraeli’s doctor, had 19 siblings!), he initially went to Imperial College in London to study Chemistry. But while there, he attended a couple of lectures on geology given by the legendary H. H. Read, and immediately knew that it was the subject for him.   

It was several years before he could follow this realisation, because World War II intervened and in 1940 he was called up to join the Army. There followed five years in the Royal Army Service Corps, much of it spent in East Africa, where he was involved in capturing Madagascar from the Vichy French forces. Working with African troops in Kenya and Tanzania, he learnt Swahili – a skill that was to later prove surprisingly valuable in his geological career. Joe eventually returned to England in April 1946 “by boat to Egypt and then to Toulon and across France by train. I had spent four years overseas, away from my family.”  

Finally able to realise his ambition, Joe returned to Imperial College to study geology the same year, obtaining First Class Honours in 1949, and also the Watts Medal for Geology and the Wheeler Prize for Mining Geology from Imperial College. “I was incredibly lucky to be taught by someone of the calibre of H.H. Read,” Joe says. “When he asked me to stay and do a doctorate with him I jumped at it, especially as my fellow Ph.D. students were Janet Watson and John Sutton.” (For the uninitiated, these names are all well known to student geologists for their textbooks on geology. Janet Watson went on to become the first woman President of the Geological Society). “I studied the extension of the Scottish Dalradian into Donegal, establishing the succession, structure, and metamorphic history of the rocks there. The area had been mapped years earlier by the Irish Geological Survey, but there was no formalised stratigraphy.” 

Mapping carbonitites

H. H. Read, Professor of Geology at Imperial College, who inspired Joe to study geology. Reproduced courtesy of the Geological Society of London Having achieved his doctorate in a record two years, Joe applied to join the UK Geological Survey. “However, they noted that I spoke Swahili, and suggested that I joined the Colonial Service instead. In 1951 I consequently found myself in Kenya, working at the Hydrological Branch of the Power and Water Directorate in Nairobi, siting boreholes all over western Kenya and studying the groundwater conditions around Nakuru in the Rift Valley.”   

After a couple of years, he moved to the Geological Survey in Kenya, to map volcanic terrains around Lake Victoria and the Rift Valley. “I became something of an expert in carbonatites – rare, carbonate igneous rocks, full of radioactive material. These were first seen in the throat of a large Miocene volcano in the Kavirondo Rift Valley, which is separate from the main Rift and runs east - west. No one had mapped these before, and I identified and mapped five of them.”  

Joe was probably doing the sort of fieldwork many geologists would envy, but it was not without its hardships. “We mapped an area of 1,200 square miles (about 3,100 km2) each year, spending six months of each year in the field, dodging wild animals, snakes and malaria, and away from my wife, who had joined me in Kenya after we married in 1956,” he explains. “We then had six months of writing up, and our boss, William Pulfrey, was a hard task master!” Joe was eventually responsible for deriving the entire sequence of volcanic rocks in the Central Rift Valley, from the Miocene to the Recent.  

“I also carried out a gravimeter survey of the Central Rift Valley, only the second such survey to have been undertaken in Kenya – the previous one was done many years earlier by Sir Edward Bullard, using pendulums, and had missed the important positive anomaly in the centre of the valley.”

Meteorites and moon studies

Janet Watson and John Sutton were contemporaries of Joe McCall at Imperial College, London. The man in the left is probably Don Bowes, an Australian postgraduate student who studied with them By 1960, at the top of his pay scale in Kenya, with no chance of promotion and unsure whether he would even be able to stay in the country after independence in 1963, Joe decided it was time for another challenge, and moved to Perth to become a Senior Lecturer in the University of Western Australia. “Although I hadn’t taught before, I found it most enjoyable,” he says. “I had some very good students, and taught petrology, structural and economic geology, also supervising various doctorate theses on the PreCambrian Archaen rocks of Australia.”  

“I also developed a great interest in meteorites, and analysed and catalogued the huge collection of these at the Western Australian Museum. There are literally hundreds of meteorites of all sizes scattered over the vast Nullabor Plain in Southern Australia, a limestone desert where the arid conditions mean they don’t deteriorate. Some of the best examples were actually collected by a rabbit trapper on the Plain – one of them weighed twelve tons! Meteorites are important, because they are the basis of many of our studies on the origin of the universe and the solar system.”  

His interest in meteorites extended into moon research, and he became an early expert on lunar geology, attending two lunar conferences in the US prior to the first Apollo Landing.

Moving into industry

However, after ten years in academia, Joe decided it was time to try something new – so he went into the mining industry. “The nickel boom in Australia was at its height, so there was lots of work. It was certainly a bit of a change from lecturing. Industry is harder than the academic life, as you really have to produce results, but it was very exciting.”   

Amongst other achievements, Joe established the Eneabba deposit, which is the largest rutile deposit in the world, and undertook exploration for gold and nickel, as well as being involved with the team which found the Ashton diamond deposits, in the extreme north-eastern part of Western Australia, “one of the biggest diamond deposits in the world, with diamonds being found in alluvium and in pipes, but not in kimberlites.”   

Eventually however, it was time to come home. “Well, the family, now with three children, returned to England,” Joe continues. “Within a week, I had left for Iran, to undertake regional geological mapping of the Makran range in the south of the country. We used helicopters to identify areas of interest and would drop off the geologists so they could map a traverse and be picked up at the end point. We mapped an area the size of England in only two years. We had just completed the field work when the revolution happened in 1978 and the Shah was deposed. Luckily for us, the new government decided to support the project, so I was able to complete the write-up – although, having watched the revolutionaries burning banks and other buildings in Tehran, most of this was done back home in Hereford.”  

There followed three years in Canada, working on a gold mine in Quebec, before Joe finally returned to England permanently, to work as a consultant editing reports on North Sea oil related projects and in the new field of Environmental Geology.  

Busy Retirement

Joe officially retired in 1991, but 20 years later he is still as active as ever. Among his many activities, he has been an editor of the Geological Society’s magazine ‘Geoscientist’ since 1992, still regularly contributing articles; attended meetings all over the world on topics ranging from climate change and geohazards to meteorites; and he was Consultant Editor for the Elsevier Encyclopedia of Geology (2005). “In my spare time I have been active in the local Gloucester Geology Trust, writing geological town trails. And I’ve taken up choral singing, which I love.”  

Joe has authored or edited 17 books and hundreds of papers, and in addition to the most recent Geological Society award, he was awarded the Geological Society’s Coke Medal in 1994 and the Distinguished Service Award of the International Union of Geological Sciences in 1997.  

A life of adventure, challenge, excitement and satisfaction, fuelled by that initial awakening to the joys of geology revealed by a brilliant teacher: an enthusiasm which he still carries and which continues to stimulate him every day. As Dr. Joe McCall summarises it simply:  

“I have had an extraordinary, unusually diverse, and very rewarding life in geology.”


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