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Wyndham Michael Edmunds


Mike Edmunds was born during the early years of the Second World War, in Wolverhampton in the West Midlands. His father, Wyndham Baker Edmunds, was a bank cashier and originated from South Wales and his mother, Irene Luffman a teacher, although born in East London came from a Wiltshire family. He grew up, with his brother Brian, like other children of the time, drinking concentrated orange juice out of flat bottles, when chocolate was something one read about in fairy stories and bananas remained undiscovered, at least as far as most people were concerned.

He went to Wolverhampton Grammar School where he excelled, achieved “A” levels in French, German and Geography and went up to Liverpool University in 1958, only a few months past his 17th birthday. Why Liverpool? Well instead of reading languages or humanities he had decided he wanted to study geology, which required a background in chemistry and physics. Liverpool was one of a limited number of universities which offered a conversion course, hence Liverpool it was. It was a difficult transition to make and he had to fit in an extra year which meant that I caught up with him in 1959, having arrived at Liverpool by a more circuitous route. These were great times to be in Liverpool, it was the era of the Liverpool Sound and of the Beatles and Bill Shankly had just arrived to turn an average 2nd division side into a major footballing force. Mike became a life-long Liverpool supporter, although his own sport was rifle shooting which seemed to involve lying indoors on a warm mat. However, it did mean he had the keys to the rifle cupboard and I can remember long debates in October 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis on whether or not we should break in and take the rifles in preparation for the nuclear strikes and chaos which was beginning to seem inevitable. We didn’t of course!

Mike completed his undergraduate work and his honours degree, in 1963. We were fortunate to have some inspiring teachers and geology was to become, not just a job, but a way of life, for us both. His specialism was geochemistry and he received a University grant to stay on for a research degree. With Michael Atherton, a young lecturer not much older than himself, as his supervisor, he began work on looking at the changes in the country rock brought about by the intrusion of a granite pluton in Donegal - a process known as contact metamorphism. I shared both a supervisor and a room with him during this period when he used to smoke a pipe. The tobacco he smoked was appalling, he used to buy it in Ireland in the form of rope-like bundles which he shredded with a pocket knife. He could clear a room almost instantly.

Most of you know him as bearded, but at this stage of his life he couldn’t decide whether he was going to be bearded or clean cut and alternated between the two. I remember mapping with him in Connemara where I was camped a few miles from him at a small farm. One morning the small son of the household rushed in very excitedly to tell me that Father Christmas with no trousers was coming into the yard. It was Mike in shorts.

At this stage of his life he met a young fellow student Kathleen Reid who was studying to be a domestic science teacher at Calder College in Liverpool. Kathy, who was exactly 2 years younger came from Gateshead in the North East and it was here that they were married on Boxing Day in 1965, almost 50 years ago. The reception was at the Royal Hotel in Newcastle at the same time as a party which followed the local derby between the Sunderland and Newcastle football teams – let’s just say that it was a noisy but exciting reception.

In 1966 after 8 very enjoyable years as a student it was time to get a job. With the encouragement of our then head of department, Wally Pitcher, we both applied for jobs with the Geological Survey, or the Institute of Geological Sciences as it was at that time. By some miracle we were both offered jobs in the new Hydrogeological Department. We had no idea what hydrogeology entailed, but the job offer included a salary which appealed as neither of us had ever had one of those before. So on 12th November 1966 we both became hydrogeologists and went from sharing a room as research students in Liverpool to sharing a room at the Geological Museum in London.

Hydrogeology – the geology of underground water- was very much a Cinderella subject at that time with few practitioners. Mike was given the job of setting up new chemical laboratories to examine the processes controlling the composition and evolution of water quality in British groundwaters. When he first joined the Survey, samples were collected in flat bottles – exactly the same as those used for the concentrated orange juice he had drank as a small boy – and sent off to the Government Chemist for analysis. Very soon they were being analysed in-house, in the sophisticated laboratory which he developed.

He rapidly establishing himself as the country’s leading expert on groundwater geochemistry. He got involved in the impact of acid rain on groundwaters; the development of geothermal energy resources; the recharge of aquifers in semi-arid and desert regions and the development of isotopic methods. From the start he began to work overseas where his first project was as part of a team exploring for groundwater in Libya.

However, it was not only within the UK that he made an impact. In 1970, he had been supported by the Survey’s Director Sir Kingsley Dunham to attend a Symposium organised by the International Association of Geochemistry in Tokyo (we were all very jealous) to present the early results of his work. There he was present at the birth of the Working Group on Water/Rock Interaction which was to have a strong influence on his subsequent career. Holding Symposia every 3 years, membership of the group gave him the opportunity to meet and work with numerous international hydrochemists. Mike was the only person to have attended all 14 symposia, a record of which he was very proud. He was chairman of the group from 1989 to 2001 and was the organiser of the 6th symposium held in Malvern in 1989.

Mike’s outstanding achievements at the Geological Survey were soon recognised and in 1986 he was promoted to an individual merit position where he could concentrate on research, free from administrative duties. He was a great networker and was able to build large multinational projects with European co-workers where his early linguistic background was a tremendous advantage as he could deliver lectures in both French and German. Reports, book chapters and journal articles poured from his pen and his work had a major impact on geochemists worldwide. This was recognised by his peers and he was awarded the Whitaker Medal by the Geological Society of London in 1999 and invited to give the Ineson Lecture by the British Group of the International Association of Hydrogeologists in 2001. In 2009 he was the first British recipient of the Meinzer Award of the Geological Society of America and in 2010 the International Association of Geochemistry awarded him the first Vernadsky Medal.

Mike retired from the Geological Survey in 2001 but continued his scientific career with an appointment as Visiting Professor at the Oxford Centre for the Environment. Here he continued his research and coordinated their Masters course in Water Science, Policy and Management. Rob Hope is going to talk about this part of his career a little later.

Initially Mike’s laboratory work was carried out in London and he, Kath and their growing family made their home in Maidenhead. However, when the bulk of the Hydrogeology Department transferred to Wallingford in the late 1970s he and his family came to live in this beautiful village. He already knew of Blewbury as my family and I had moved here in 1972 and the Edmunds’ family had been regular visitors. Mike rapidly became involved in village life and already had an allotment assigned to him before he arrived. He was active in the Blewbury Village Society and for many years was Chairman of the Environment Group which in 2006 produced a book on Blewbury, “A view from the Hill”, to emphasise the value of the countryside and raise funds to preserve and improve it. The concept of sustainability was very important to him. He was interested in music, he sang in local choirs, and was a keen gardener and collector of cacti.

His family was important to him and he always said that he could not have sustained such a busy career without them. Kathy travelled with him all over the world and when he left her for his favourite desert environments she had the support of the family back-up team, Katherine, David, Victoria and Paul. He was very proud of them and his six grandchildren.

We will remember Mike as a devoted family man, a treasured friend and colleague, an internationally recognised environmental scientist, and a thoroughly nice guy. His death has been a great shock to all of us but he had a great life which he lived to the full which is as much as anyone can ask for. I think that the number of people here today confirms what a significant impact he had on all our lives – we will miss him.

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