Obituary: Sir Laurence Kirwan

Article excerpt

THOUGH HE was not himself a geographer by training, the name of Laurence Kirwan must be placed highly in the record of those active in the development of geographical studies in Britain in the years after 1945.

When L.P. ("Larry") Kirwan took up his post in that year as Director and Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society, great tasks lay in waiting inside the society's house in Kensington Gore as well as in wider spheres. Fellowship numbers needed revival and the Geographical Journal a new impetus. Contacts with growing university departments had to be improved and scientists and scholars from related disciplines drawn in. Rapid progress was required to re- establish the programmes of lectures and discussions. There were urgent calls to resume the organisation and support of field exploration. Contacts with overseas geographers had to be re- opened.

In some ways Kirwan was an unusual choice for the post. His time at Merton College, Oxford, had not produced a degree. However he had already acquired wide field experience as an archaeologist in Egypt and the Sudan. From 1929 to 1934 he was assistant director of the Archaeological Survey of Nubia of the Egyptian Department of Activities and he had acted as field director of Oxford University Expeditions to Nubia in 1934-37. Kirwan was born in Cork in 1907, the second son of Patrick Kirwan of Cregg, Co Galway. He was educated at Wimbledon College before going up to Oxford. Afterwards, he was able to carry on fieldwork until 1938 and to publish (with W.B. Emery) two volumes of excavation reports and papers among which may be found the discoveries, at Ballana and Qustal in the Sudan, of the tombs of Sudanese kings of the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Oxford University awarded him an MLitt degree. From 1937 to 1939 he was Tweedie Fellow in Archaeology and Anthropology in Edinburgh University with opportunities for further fieldwork in the eastern Sudan and in Aden. Meanwhile, Kirwan had been commissioned as a reserve officer in the Territorial Army. On the outbreak of war he became a staff officer and from 1942 to 1945 served as a lieutenant-colonel on the joint staffs of the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence. The experience he gained of the ways of government was to prove useful. He was quickly at home in Kensington Gore: his very tall, straight-backed, handsome figure quickly began to personify the RGS. The staff there was small and not well paid and he did a great deal of work himself including for a time the detailed as well as the general editing of the Geographical Journal. His emphasis was always on the maintenance of high standards. The house was opened up more easily to young people through schemes which encouraged them and their schools and colleges to join. Corporate membership brought in industries and business organisations. Administrative paperwork was kept low: young academic honorary secretaries were apt to be rebuked for lengthy minutes and memoranda. "Cabinet-office, brief, clear and unambiguous minutes are the style here!" he remarked. His own style, though active, was calm and relaxed. On the expeditions side, the society's work flourished again. The Expeditions Committee was kept busy interviewing and making grants to young people. No other country in the world had (or has) the same level of activity in young scientific expeditions. Good plans for senior and society-sponsored expeditions emerged also. He was deeply involved, for example, in the planning of the Norwegian/British/ Swedish expedition to Queen Maud Land, led by John Giaver (1949/ 52), the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition of Sir Vivian Fuchs (1955/58), the ecological survey of South Turkana (Kenya 1960/62) and the joint expedition with the Royal Society to the Mato Grosso led by Iain Bishop (1967/69). Within the society he maintained the balance of interests between laymen, academics, mountaineers and field scientists, and between traditional and new approaches. …