In the early 1990s, one of Canada’s foremost geochemists, Dr. Robert Kerrich, kissed his wife goodbye in Saskatchewan and set off for a geology conference. While sequestered in a room full of other scientists, his head cluttered with paperwork and PowerPoint presentations, he accepted a tempting proposition and high-tailed it out of there.
He went from a conference centre in the continental United States to the mouth of a Hawaiian volcano – literally. With a tool belt of glass jars secured around his waist, he was lowered by rope from a helicopter into the volcano. Dr. Kerrich was on a quest to capture gases from molten rock, an irresistible offer.
Once back on cooler ground, after having slipped out of his sweaty asbestos suit, he called his wife, Bev Kerrich, from a satellite telephone and described the expedition.
“Weren’t you afraid there would be a lava bomb?” she asked him.
“Yes, of course,” he said, but told her his first terror was dropping the samples. “This is valuable research.”
As an Earth scientist, Dr. Kerrich contributed significantly to understanding how the Earth’s crust evolved. This work has been vital to the mining industry as well as agricultural and health sciences. He developed the standard model of how gold deposits are formed – by fluids circulating through ancient mountain belts in areas where plates of the Earth’s crust once collided.
According to his colleague, economic geologist Richard Goldfarb, Dr. Kerrich’s success came from his knack for paying careful attention to unusual things rather than ignoring them. “Since the late 1970s, [Dr. Kerrich], in contrast to many workers in our field, has always reached outside our discipline to examine complex interrelationships in the Earth sciences that impact our understanding of ore systems.”
A professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Dr. Kerrich published more than 250 papers and two books, and was a frequently cited Canadian geologist. His research and fieldwork brought wide-ranging contributions to Canadian geoscience and boosted the Canadian economy through detecting mineral deposits in Precambrian rock.
He received the Penrose Gold Medal from the Society of Economic Geologists, the Logan Medal from the Geological Association of Canada, and an impressive list of other awards. In 1992, he became the youngest fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a collegium of distinguished scholars, artists and scientists.
Robert Kerrich was born in Dorking, England, in 1948. His father, Geoffrey Kerrich, was an entomologist with the British Natural History Museum. He became Robert’s first mentor, introducing his son to extraordinary insects crawling along the surface of the Earth, a planet he came to know so intimately.
Carving his first academic foothold at age 13 at the Bryanston Boarding School, in Dorset, on the English Channel coast, Robert went on to attend Birmingham University, where he received a bachelor of science in 1971. He switched to Imperial College, London, and in 1975 had completed a master of science and PhD.
Dr. Kerrich was awarded a NATO post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Western Ontario in 1975, and set his sights on Canadian soil.
In 1987, he accepted the George J. McLeod Chair in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan, a position he held until his death. Dr. Kerrich died in Sooke, B.C., in his wife Bev’s arms, on April 17 at 64.
As one of the most prolific writers in the international geoscience community, Dr. Kerrich was cited more than 6,000 times in scientific papers – an impressive number, considering that the closest contender was cited 3,000 times.
In addition to his academic credentials, Dr. Kerrich mentored a number of high-achieving scientists. The average number of graduate students under one professor’s tutelage is around 60 – Dr. Kerrich’s protégés numbered more than 200.
“If you weigh the productivity where these students ended up, as professors and as senior researchers internationally, you’d look at [Dr. Kerrich] and say: That was the most positive thing he did – training people,” said his colleague and former student, Dr. Jim Hendry. “I think it was this collegiality approach he used that actually got him as far as he did – that, and the fact that he was smart.”
Through these associations, Dr. Kerrich helped solicit more than $30-million in grants to the University of Saskatchewan.
Dr. Hendry said Dr. Kerrich was skilled at incorporating different methods from all areas of science to answer tough questions about the Earth.
“[He] basically took the whole Canadian North or the Australian Outback and said, ‘Now looking at this mass amount of land, where would I expect the ore deposits to be? And where would I get my leases to try to hunt down a mine?’ ”
Dr. Kerrich collaborated with Dr. Hendry, an environmental geologist, on arsenic contamination of the groundwater in Bangladesh. “We were at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what we do,” said Dr. Hendry, “And he helped me; he brought a different perspective to the way people do science.”
In 1994, Dr. Kerrich spent a year as visiting professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, and the University of Western Australia in Perth, and spent months mucking about Down Under.
According to Bev Kerrich, who joined him on several hikes, their kit always included a sledgehammer, a fistful of sample bags and a black felt pen for labels. While other tourists stopped to gawk at wildlife, Dr. Kerrich stopped to explore curious rock formations.
He was dropped into volcanoes, led scores of scientists to international success and discovered veins of gold. Meanwhile, during his free time, he lectured six-year-olds about that solid thing they stomp upon in playgrounds – the Earth.
For one class of first-graders, he popped into Tim Hortons on the way to the school and picked up a box of Timbits as a prop to represent the Earth. Then he gathered the kids into a circle for their lesson. After they munched on a sugary planet, he passed around fossilized dinosaur poop, borrowed from the museum, transporting his crayon-hefting pupils back to the Precambrian days and earlier creatures who liked to stomp.
“Why is the sky blue?” his grandson Luke once asked him, Bev said.
“Because of the spectrum of colours,” he answered. “Planet earth isn’t just rock solid, it also is made up of gases. And the sun reflects through these gases and this is why the sky is very blue some days, and not so blue other days.”
In 2006, Robert and Bev moved to Sooke, B.C., partially because he fell in love with a particular rock. “There was this humongous rock in the backyard of a house we were interested in – at least eight feet wide, six feet high, fifteen feet in circumference. It was left there after the last ice age,” Bev said.
“It’s a sign!” her husband said.
Dr. Kerrich leaves his wife, Bev; stepson David Johnson and stepson-in-law Jared Tisserand; grandchildren Finnley, Olive and Luke; sister Mary Tayleur; brother Tom Kerrich; and mother-in-law Marion Stooshinoff.
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