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Pioneer of marine geology and oceanography awarded Honorary Doctorate of Science

Published: 25 July 2019
Sir Anthony Laughton & Damon Teagle
Professor Damon Teagle (right) nominated Sir Anthony Laughton (centre) for an Honorary Doctorate.

Sir Anthony Laughton FRS, a distinguished leader of the post-war generation of marine geologists and ocean scientists, has been made an Honorary Doctor of Science by the University of Southampton.

Throughout a long and distinguished career, Sir Anthony, now 92 years old, was instrumental in establishing oceanography and marine geology as serious scientific disciplines and revolutionised our abilities to understand major processes in the oceans and the sediments and rocks beneath.  Thanks to his many technological innovations, Sir Anthony contributed significantly to the development and acceptance of the theory of plate tectonics and seafloor spreading that provide the basic template for our understanding of the Earth.

Sir Anthony was Director and Chief Scientific Officer of the Institute of Ocean Sciences (IOS), one of the fore-runner organisations that merged to form the Southampton Oceanography Centre (now National Oceanography Centre Southampton), and was one of the group who planned the co-location of the University of Southampton’s Geology and Oceanography Departments with government scientists to form one of the world’s leading oceanographic centres.

With his team at IOS in the 1960s, Sir Anthony pioneered sonar based observations of the ocean floor and developed the GLORIA (Geologic Long Range Inclined Asdic) platform. Weighing 6 tons, GLORIA was towed behind a ship, capturing acoustic pictures of the sea floor over a range of about 22 kilometres. An early success of the project was identifying an active fault valley east of the Azores and the tectonic structure of a mid-ocean ridge.  These techniques were also important for establishing the basis for claims, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to parts of ocean floor and thus to any underlying resources.  Consequently GLORIA was used to survey the entire Exclusive Economic Zones of the UK and USA.

Sir Anthony also initiated the United Kingdom’s involvement in scientific ocean drilling and in 1970 was the first non-US Co-Chief scientist on Deep Sea Drilling Project Leg 12 that drilled a transect of sites across the North Atlantic Ocean.  His fought to maintain the UK’s engagement in ocean drilling and this legacy continues today, with University of Southampton scientists and early career and PhD researchers strongly involved in all aspects of the current International Ocean Discovery Program.

“Thank you for this award which, for me, has been a humbling experience about how my life has developed over the years,” said Sir Anthony in accepting the honour. “It is something that at my rather my ripe old age I didn’t expect to happen!

“In those early days of oceanography, life was very different from what I think you as graduates will be experiencing; it was enormous fun!” he enthused.

Professor Damon Teagle, Professor of Geochemistry in Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Director of the Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute, praised Sir Anthony’s ingenuity and pioneering spirit.

“My and future generations of marine geologists and ocean scientists owe huge debts of inspiration to the ambition, ingenuity and perseverance of the heroic generations of scientists who led the development of ocean sciences in the decades following the Second World War,” said Professor Teagle, who nominated Sir Anthony for the Honorary Doctorate of Science. “Technical developments such as GLORIA, the invitation of UK researchers to engage with the unique opportunities of scientific ocean drilling through the US-led DSDP, to the vision to co-locate government scientists on the Southampton waterfront together with the vibrancy of a major University research department are testament to Sir Anthony’s leadership and foresight.”

In addition to thanking his many colleagues from over the years, Sir Anthony singled out Maurice Hill FRS (Univ. Cambridge) and Sir George Deacon FRS (IOS) for particular praise.

Maurice, a friend and mentor of Sir Anthony’s from King’s College Cambridge, offered him an opportunity to do a PhD in Marine Geophysics at Cambridge after Sir Anthony had to give up his career in Nuclear Physics due to a failed blood test.

“As was customary in those days, they would take a sample of your blood to see if you were susceptible to radiation,” Sir Anthony recalled. “They took a sample of my blood, sent for me and took another sample and sent for me again to say, ‘look young man, do not start a career in Nuclear Physics – find something else to do!”

Sir Anthony spent three years with Maurice and his team, largely on seismic work and learning a number of other technics. It was through Maurice that he was able to spend a year at the Lamont Geological Observatory in the USA. Whilst there, Sir Anthony met the second great influence on his life, Sir George Deacon, who offered him an opportunity to work at the then National Institute of Oceanography in Surrey.

“George asked me what I wanted to do so I told him that I wanted to develop the technology for looking more closely at the ocean bottom at considerable depth, of three miles and five miles,” he explained. “These are things you can really only do by dangling an instrument on a wire so I developed a camera that would handle the pressures at those depths to bring a light to illuminate the sea floor and an acoustic transmitter to tell me, sitting on the bough of the ship, that it had touched the bottom.

“This was a wonderful learning experience about the fauna – the abyssal fauna - and the mounds and tracks on the bottom of the ocean created by the abyssal fauna,” he continued. “It was really because of the wisdom of George Deacon and his ability to bring together a group of specialists of engineers, designers, of physical oceanographers, marine biologists and put together a group which was a very powerful group and was well recognised globally as being one of the world’s influential groups.”

Sir Anthony’s many other honours include the Prince Albert 1st of Monaco Gold Medal for Oceanography, the Royal Geographical Society’s Founders Medal, and the Murchison Medal, Geological Society of London. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society (1986) and received a Knighthood for services to oceanography in 1987.

 

 

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Sir Anthony Laughton received a standing ovation upon being made an Honorary Doctor of Science at the University of Southampton.
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Throughout a long and distinguished career, Sir Anthony, now 92 years old, was instrumental in establishing oceanography and marine geology as serious scientific disciplines and revolutionised our abilities to understand major processes in the oceans and the sediments and rocks beneath.
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