Charles Hutchinson: A Geologist in Love with South-East Asia

One day in 1957, a young geologist was reading the Times of London in Trinidad where he worked for an oil company. The newspaper carried an advertisement which was to change his life path for good.
This article appeared in Vol. 10, No. 1 - 2013


Charles Hutchison as Professor Emeritus of the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in 2004. Source: Photo courtesy of Timothy Hutchison

The young geologist was 24-year-old Charles Hutchison, and the advertisement was from the University of Malaya in Singapore for the position of an assistant lecturer in the newly established Department of Geology.

Charles applied for the position and soon received an offer, which he accepted, and the university urged him to start working as soon as possible. In those days, air travel was not a routine way of transportation, so Charles sailed on a ship for England and then on another ship to Singapore, an island on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. The whole voyage took seven weeks. At the port in Singapore, Professor Charles Solomon Pichamuthu (1900–1990), a geologist from southern India who had established the Geology Department at Singapore, received the young Charles. The Malay Peninsula was to be his home for the rest of his life.

Igneous Rock Specialist

Charles Hutchison (far left) with university colleagues, friends and students in Penang, 1960. Standing second and third right are Professor C.S. Pichamuthu and his Indian wife. Source: Photo courtesy of Timothy Hutchison Charles Strachan Hutchison was born on 17 April 1933 in the town of Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire, Scotland as the first child of his family; his only sibling was born ten years later. Charles went to schools in Fraserburgh, and then studied at the University of Aberdeen, graduating in 1955 with B.Sc. first class honours in geology. He then went to work in Fyzabad in Trinidad, before coming across that fateful advertisment.

Life in Singapore was enjoyable and work in the geology department was fun. Hutchison was only the second teaching member of staff in the Department, the other being Professor Pichamuthu, who had obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow and had, therefore, a liking for Scotland. Besides Pichamuthu and Hutchison, a secretary and a laboratory assistant were the only people working in the department. In the new environment, Hutchison soon developed his hobby of photography.

While a geology student in Scotland, Hutchison had been fascinated by the abundant igneous rocks of his homeland. He thus conducted research on the petrology and tectonics of igneous rocks in the Malay Peninsula. Rocks, no matter what type, are easily weathered in the hot and humid equatorial climate of South-East Asia, but rivers and mining quarries provided important opportunities for Hutchison to see into the basement.

His first paper was published in the prestigious American Journal of Science in 1961. He also wrote his doctorate thesis on ‘Tectonic and petrological relations within three rock associations of orogenic zones in Malaysia’, submitted in 1966 to the University of Malaya in Singapore.

Growing Departments

Source: University of Malaya The late 1950s and early 1960s was a period of rapid change in the geopolitical situation in South-East Asia. Administered for decades as a British colony, Malaya became an independent state in 1957, followed by Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah) in 1963, when all three formed the Federation of Malaysia. Singapore became a self-governing state in 1959, an independent state in 1963 (joining Malaysia), and finally an independent republic in 1965. Both Malaysia and Singapore still remain within the (formerly British) Commonwealth of Nations.

Due to political changes, the University of Malay was split into two universities: the campus on the Bukit Timah Road as the University of Malaya in Singapore, and the campus in Pantai Valley as the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. In 1960, Hutchison, along with his colleagues, moved to Kuala Lumpur, while still retaining his doctoral candidacy in Singapore. In Kuala Lumpur, Hutchison played a leading role in founding the university’s geology department, where he continued his research, teaching and writing. It was also in 1960 that Hutchison married his wife, Ann, formerly Chan Ah Eng, a Malaysian Chinese; the couple raised a daughter (Helene) and a son (Timothy), and the marriage lasted until her death many years later.

For some time, Hutchison became interested in the newly developed science of thermoluminescence dating, but igneous petrology, tectonics, and mineral resources of the Malay Peninsula remained his main research interests throughout his career. During the 1960s and 70s, the geology department at Kuala Lumpur witnessed stable growth – thanks in part to the leadership of Neville Seymour Haile (1928–2004), an Oxford geologist who had conducted pioneering work at the Geological Survey of Borneo and had joined the geology department at Kuala Lumpur in 1964.

Prolific Author of Repute

Charles Hutchison played a leading role in the early development of the Geology Department at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur. Source: University of Malaya Hutchison was a founding member of the Geological Society of Malaysia in 1967, and served as its president during 1969–71. An early book that brought international repute to Hutchison was The Geology of the Malay Peninsula (West Malaysia and Singapore), co-edited by Hutchison and Derek J. Gobbert, who was a professor of palaeontology and stratigraphy at Kuala Lumpur from 1961 to 1968. This book (now a classic) was published in 1973 in the Regional Geology Series by Wiley-Interscience, London, and was a successor to John Brooke Scrivenor’s 1931 book The Geology of Malaya. Of the 11 chapters in the book, Hutchison wrote the chapters on volcanic activity, plutonic activity, and metamorphism.

In 1974, Hutchison published Laboratory Handbook of Petrographic Techniques, a massive work of over 500 pages. He was promoted to full professor of applied geology at Kuala Lumpur in 1977, and (upon N. S. Haile’s retirement) served as head of the geology department from 1978 to 1982. Hutchison’s second textbook, Economic Deposits and Their Tectonic Settings, came out in 1983.

Professor Hutchison retired from his university work at Kuala Lumpur in 1987 although he retained his university title until 1992. During this period, he mostly resided in the U.K. where his son was a university student. In addition, from 1988 to 1991, Hutchison was coordinator for an international project entitled ‘Studies in East Asian Tectonics and Resources (SEATAR) Transects’, and edited and contributed to a number of its reports.

Hutchison published over 100 articles, but he is perhaps best known for his two books: Geological Evolution of South-East Asia (1989, dedicated to “the former professors of geology at the University of Malaya”) and South-East Asian Oil, Gas, Coal and Mineral Deposits (1996, dedicated to his wife Ann), both published by the Oxford University Press. These two books synthesised the geology of South-East Asia and are still useful and benchmark volumes in the field. A second edition of The Geological Evolution of South-East Asia was published by the Geological Society of Malaysia in 2007. In the preface to his book, Hutchison remarked: “I have always taught my students that every aspect of geology involves interpretation. From thin sections to hand specimens, to maps and thence to regions, there is an increasing order of interpretation. This book is, therefore, a personal interpretation of the region.”

In 2005, Hutchison published Geology of North-West Borneo, which he dedicated to the geologists of The Geological Survey, Borneo Region (established in 1949 as the Geological Survey Department, British Territories in Borneo) who “through their pioneering work in a difficult nearly inaccessible terrain, made it one of the greatest in the world.” In 2009, Hutchison and his renowned Malaysian colleague D.N.K. Tan edited the Geology of Peninsular Malaysia.

Hutchison was appointed Professor Emeritus at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in 2004, and from May 2009 until his death on 18 October 2011, served as Visiting Senior Research Fellow at his department.

Influential Teacher

A tall Scottish geologist from a land where geology was born, Hutchison had great devotion to his work, and was thus an influential teacher, author and a geologist equally comfortable in the field, in the laboratory and in the office. He trained several generations of Malaysian geologists, and made significant contributions to our knowledge of South-East Asian geology. And he lived long enough to see his great-grandchildren.

Hutchison was elected honorary fellow of the Geological Society of London, The Geological Society of Malaysia, the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy of London, and the Mineralogical Society of America. In 1994, he received the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)’s Special Commendation Award. In September 2012, the late Professor Hutchison was remembered at two Memorial Sessions held at AAPG’s International Conference and Exhibition in Singapore, where he had started his love of South-East Asian geology 55 years before.

Author’s note: I am grateful to Mr. Timothy Hutchison for kindly sharing with me information, photographs and the late Professor Hutchison’s two unpublished autobiographical essays, which, I hope, will be published in the future as they chronicle the post-war development of geological activities in the Malay Peninsula. For a list of Professor Charles Hutchison’s publications see my ‘Memorial to Charles Strachan Hutchison (1933-2011, published in Geological Society of America Memorials, vol. 41, December 2012).


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