Desmond Donovan (1921-2019)

Palaeontologist and polymath with a lifelong passion for research and fieldwork

Desmond Thomas Donovan was educated at Epsom College, and studied Geology at Bristol, graduating with a BSc in 1942. Then he was obliged to join the army, becoming a Lieutenant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. After demobilisation in 1946, he returned to Bristol, completing a PhD in 1951 on ‘The Ammonites of the Blue Lias of the Bristol District’, published a year later (Donovan 1952a, b). In this work, Donovan was supervised by Professor W.F. Whittard and assisted in the field by Tom Fry. He financed these studies by working as Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Geology at the University of Bristol from 1947, and Lecturer from 1950. He also conducted fieldwork on the Cretaceous of Greenland on Lauge Koch’s expeditions, each year from 1947 to 1957.

In the 1950s, Desmond Donovan devoted much energy to fieldwork, mapping Bathonian Fullers Earth of the Cotswold Hills with W. J. Arkell, providing consultancy services on water supply of the area and contributing to publications such as Geology of the Bristol District (BAAS, 1956) and Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’. Having written the geology introduction to the Somerset volume published in 1958, Desmond must have been unique in having also written the geological notes for the revised 2nd edition in 2014, 56 years later.

At Bristol, Desmond met Lou Saward, also a geologist, who later became his wife. In 1962 he was appointed Professor of Geology at Hull University, during which time he worked on a major project mapping the floor of the North Sea. From 1966 to 1982 he held the Yates-Goldsmid Chair at University College London, overseeing the department and supervising several PhD studentships. Desmond retired from UCL in 1982 and spent three years as honorary curator at the Wells and Mendip Museum in Somerset.

Donovan continued publishing papers on the geology of Somerset, especially the Jurassic and Pleistocene, as well as on building stones and church architecture. He also continued his interests in coleoids (shell-less cephalopods), ultrastructure in cephalopods, taphonomic studies and the molecular phylogeny of recent cephalopods. Even at the age of 97, he was still publishing and discussing research projects he planned to finish.

In his obituary, Oates (2019) writes, “Desmond Donovan was an old-style polymath, a quiet and gentle man interested in and knowledgeable about many things, who never lost his curiosity and enthusiasm… Recent visitors to his house in Wells will recall small trays of specimens awaiting measurement for statistical analysis, and excellent real coffee. His great intellectual ability was disguised with a very modest and unassuming manner, and a gentle sense of humour.”

Read more

Donovan, D.T. 1952a. The ammonites of the Blue Lias of the Bristol district. Part I. Psiloceratidae and Schlotheimidae. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Series 12 5, 629–655.

Donovan, D.T. 1952b. The ammonites of the Blue Lias of the Bristol district. Part II. Arietitidae. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, Series 12 5, 717–752.

Donovan, D.T. 1956. The zonal stratigraphy of the Blue Lias around Keynsham, Somerset. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 66, 182–212.

Donovan, D.T. 1971. Stratigraphy: An Introduction to Principles. Wiley, London, 200 pp.

Donovan, D.T., Horton, A. and Ivimey-Cook, H.C. 1979. The transgression of the Lower Lias over the northern flank of the London Platform. Journal of the Geological Society 136, 165–173.

Donovan, D.T. and Kellaway, G.A. 1984. Geology of the Bristol District: The Lower Jurassic Rocks. British Geological Survey, Keyworth, 74 pp.

Oates, M. 2019. Desmond Donovan 1921-2019. Geological Society of London. Read the obituary here.