Sunday, 6 August 2017

Memories of Prof. Keith Atkinson

While on holiday in Devon I received the really sad news that one of my oldest friends and colleagues from Camborne School of Mines (CSM), Prof. Keith Atkinson, died last Wednesday after a long illness, which he bore with amazing spirit and fortitude.
Keith was already established as a geology lecturer at CSM when I started in 1974, but we immediately developed a lasting friendship due to his always cheerful personality, ready wit and a collection of anecdotes that Peter Ustinoff would have envied.
As well as professionally, our friendship developed socially. Keith was a stalwart of the CSM cricket team, a useful medium pace swing bowler, who, in his self deprecating manner, would amuse us at the start of each season by struggling to get into his cricket flannels, which had miraculously shrunk during the winter. As the season progressed, things would get easier, only for the process to be repeated the following year!
Keith hosting my CSM retirement function
Keith was the host on my retirement from CSM in 1996 and amongst his anecdotes reminded me of an embarrassing episode when he and his wife Maureen joined us at the new Hall for Cornwall in Truro for a performance of the opera The Tales of Hoffmann. During the interval Keith and I thought we might just have enough time to slip out to the nearby pub for a couple of pints, but unfortunately on our return the next act had just started, and the still unfinished Hall had extremely creaky floorboards. Our slow and noisy ascent to our seats was all the more embarrassing as it took place during the operas great set piece, the aria Barcarolle!
Born in Port Talbot, South Wales, on 16th October 1942, Keith Atkinson was appointed a geology lecturer at CSM in 1969, becoming Vice Principal in the late 1980s. He became Head of CSM in 1994, and after the merger with the University of Exeter became  Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University in 1997, where he was responsible for restructuring and for helping establish the University’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies.
Through his research in geology, he was author and editor of two text books and of over 50 scientific articles in learned journals. Geologists around the world will be familiar with Ore Deposit Geology, co-authored in 1986 with his fellow CSM geologist Richard Edwards. A past President of the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, he was awarded their Bolitho Gold Medal for ‘Services to Geology’ in 1998.
As well as being a renowned geologist Keith also had a great interest in mineral processing, he and I even co-authoring two papers for Minerals Engineering. He was a great public speaker and when I organised the first of the annual Minerals Engineering conferences with CSM Associates, in pre-MEI days, it was to Keith who I turned to present the opening address in Singapore. He also played a big part in Minerals Engineering '92 the following year in Vancouver, and at Minerals Engineering '93 in Cape Town.
Singapore 1991. Keith with CSM past and present staff and students
Phil Newell, me, Paul Mitchell, Dave Osborne, Andy Stradling and Lucky Amaratunga
Singapore 1991 with University of Birmingham's Neil Ashton and Terry Veasey
Vancouver 1992, with past and present CSM Students

St. Agnes, Cornwall 1992, entertaining Prof. Cyril O'Connor and his wife Nanette
(3rd and 4th left), from the University of Cape Town

Keith with CSM delegates at Minerals Engineering '93, Cape Town: Ian Jackson, Richard Pascoe,
Kirsty Walker, Gareth Brown, me, Paul Hodgkinson, Gaynor Yorath and Chris Martin
Keith and I providing the entertainment at Groot Constantia Wine Estate, 1993
Over the past few years Barbara and I have regularly got together for pub lunches with Keith and Maureen, and old CSM friends Richard and Veronica Edwards, Mike and Margaret Buzza and Sheila Parker. Keith will be very sorely missed by us all and we pass on our sincere condolences to Maureen, and to his daughters Rosalind and Caroline, and grandchildren Mia, Toby and Ludo.
Pub lunch in Redruth, March 2016. Back row: Mike Buzza, Barbara, Keith, Richard Edwards and me
Front row: Margaret Buzza, Sheila Parker, Veronica Edwards, Maureen Atkinson
This wonderful man touched the lives of many, including mine, and I invite all who knew Keith to leave their own memories and appreciations.
How Keith will always be remembered, with great affection, passing on one of his anecdotes
to past students Mark Shimmield, Paul Burton and Nick Wilshaw
Twitter @barrywills


  1. I wish you'd not stopped writing, I could've carried on reading for ages. A lovely tribute, thank you. See you soon x

  2. I was a mineral processing student when Keith was Vice Principal of CSM. He was a kind and confidence-inspiring teacher. I hadn't seen him for 25 years (Vancouver '92) but his voice is clear in my mind now. This is sad news.

  3. Keith was my friend for more than forty years. He achieved a huge amount during his lifetime but never boasted about his success. He was great company with a quick sense of humour and an endless fund of amusing anecdotes where often he was himself the butt of the joke. He bore his illness with great courage and dignity. He will be greatly missed by many people.
    Richard Edwards

  4. I am hugely saddened to hear of the passing of Keith Atkinson. I have many fond memories of the diligence, care and stewardship he demonstrated during the inaugural 1980-81 mining geology masters year.

    We were all fortunate to have the likes of Keith and Richard Edwards to further our orebody knowledge during that exciting year. It appeared to me that Keith wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to teaching, and I remember after delivering a lecture using his own materials for the first time on a subject (I think it was porphyry copper deposits) he commented to those few of us remaining in the lab that he felt he had not delivered it particularly well. He appeared totally crestfallen and disappointed at his own efforts. This level of self-criticism was an example of how much care he invested in his teaching to ensure that this Masters course, though new, was of the highest standard. It speaks volumes as to the conscientiousness of his approach. A pity a few more of my undergraduate degree lecturers were not of the same standard!

    Stephen Pevely, Rio Tinto, Australia

    1. Keith was the driving force behind that course. I come across so many people now who have done it and we all owe a debt of gratitude to KA for his foresight, enthusiasm and geological intellect.
      Genuine nice bloke too.
      Simon Pepper

  5. Hi Barry,
    Sorry we didn’t get to meet up again at the CSM dinner in March. Mark Pearson and I organised a small 1977 reunion, which was sadly blighted by Steve Lay’s wife passing away.
    Please give my sincere condolences to Maureen and family.
    As a “geologist” before arriving at Camborne in 1974, having gained an A level, I always found Keith’s lectures very informative. Although I went on to be the first “oily” from the degree course, my interest in Geology never waned. Indeed my enthusiasm for Geology and the quality of the lectures convinced my twin brother John ( a graduate Geologist from Kingston) to follow me to CSM to do one of the first post grads in Geology at CSM. All this supported by Richard and Keith.
    Kind regards
    Charles Nieto, UK

  6. Hello Barry, thank you for passing on the sad news. I started at CSM on the 20th September 1976, a good time to be there with the School recently settled into the new building at Trevenson and just starting to expand the range of courses on offer. After a couple of days introduction presided over by a harassed-looking Donald Andrews we started lectures. Geology was covered by Keith and Richard Edwards. I particularly remember Keith teaching us Geophysics - not the easiest of subjects but with Keith's unique lecturing style the hour passed quickly. I understood nearly all of it and always managed to take a good set of notes which I still have.

    Keith was also brave enough to take us on a number of field trips around West Cornwall, trusting us to behave ourselves and look after some very expensive-looking kit. We only let Keith down once, on some exploration near Penzance when we found our way to the nearest pub for lunch on Day One. After a pasty washed down by several pints there wasn't much productive work done in the afternoon. Travelling down for Day Two Keith stopped the Grenville Motors coach at the Co-op in Hayle and we were told to buy enough food to last us the day, the pub trip obviously wasn't going to be repeated! On that same week Keith strayed from the syllabus and encouraged us all to try using dowsing rods. The results were very interesting and gave the sceptics among us something to think about. Keith also advised us about keeping cows away from high voltage electrodes but left us to find our own way of dealing with aggressive farm dogs.

    I remember Keith once told us about doing some mapping for the Geological Survey. This involved the issue of water-colour paints in the standard colours for all the different strata. I like to think that set of paints is still at the back of a desk drawer somewhere.

    I was pleased to see Keith progress to be Principal of CSM. This was at a time of great change and in addition to all his other duties Keith had to re-assure a lot of people worried about the future of CSM. Fortunately the political realities of education policy were satisfied, the School survived and expanded and Keith kept his happy smile.

    Apart from the academic side, Keith supported so many of the various social functions and always showed a genuine interest in the fortunes of his past students. Keith was often seen on wind-swept Barrel Match side-lines and gave a number of interesting speeches at the Annual Dinners - not a job for the faint-hearted!

    I last saw Keith at the CSM Penventon meal in December 2016 where we caught up on our news. At one stage conversation turned to Geophysics, which it can on these occasions. We were both pleasantly surprised when I remembered correctly two different resistivity arrays. After 40 years that was surely a tribute to the quality of Keith's lecturing.

    Happy memories.

    Sam Wood

    1. Hello Barry, some more memories. Richard Edwards has already mentioned Keith's ready supply of anecdotes - I've remembered a couple of these which amused us in the middle of our lectures.

      The first one was about a group of students doing some fieldwork around Trevenson campus, their aim was to draw contours of various geophysical parameters. The easy way to do this is to set out a grid, take the measurements and then return to the classroom to draw the contours by interpolation.

      Keith said he returned later to check progress and found there had been a misunderstanding. Instead of using a simple grid the students had tried to position the electrodes on the actual contours. This needed an enormous amount of trial and error and each electrode position required a shallow hole in the grass. Obviously this made rather a mess of the Technical College grass. I think Keith left the story there, I'd love to have known what happened next!

      The second story involved some geochemical fieldwork in the Red River valley. When this exercise was nearly finished Keith went to fetch the minibus and told the students he would drive round to meet them. After a long wait, Keith decided to look for the group, and was surprised to find them wading down the middle of the river waist deep in water. Instead of using the perfectly good path, Keith's instruction to “walk down the river and meet me at the road” had been taken literally!

      Both these incidents might have been down to language difficulties with some of the many overseas students at CSM in those days. Whatever the cause, those stories certainly taught me a lot about giving and receiving clear instructions!

      After all the effort that went into educating us, I was pleased to return a favour when Keith was leading the industrial tours to the midlands and north of England, usually accompanied by Andy Wetherelt and Adam Beer. Around that time I was Assistant Manager at Middleton Limestone Mine in Derbyshire, and I was pleased to host the students on a couple of visits.

      A couple of things gave me some idea of what Keith and his colleagues had to deal with on these tours. Driving the party around the mine in a 12-seater Land Rover, I stopped to show the students where we had cut through the workings of an ancient Lead mine. As soon as I pointed out the small access to these workings the students all disappeared like rats up a drain. I didn't mind them having a look, but I wanted to warn them about the open stopes and shafts they would find! Fortunately, after a good scramble round they all re-appeared and we continued with the visit.

      These tours were usually based at Gradbach Youth Hostel, close to Three Shires Head, the meeting point of the boundaries of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire, and about five miles out of Buxton. After the students had been driven into town for their evening entertainment I would meet up with Keith, Andy and Adam for a more leisurely beer and curry. Quite often there were fewer students to take back – some found alternative overnight accommodation in the course of the evening! Keith had developed a routine to pick up the absentees from the Market Place the following morning. There was a lot more to the CSM education than mining and geology!

      Sam Wood

  7. Barry, my addition is not so amusing as many of the others but it highlights Keith's amazing powers of persuasion! In the mid 1990s I happened to be in Trevenson for a meeting and Keith found out and asked for a 'quick discussion'. He was concerned that the make up of the CSM Trust was loosing long term CSM supporters because there had been a substantial turnover in Trustees due to ill health and retirements. He asked whether or not I would consider being a Trustee. I really didn't think I had the time and declined. He pressed on with cooments like 'it was only one meeting per year with very little paper work'. I gave in. That was a sucker punch, right into the period of 'growing pains' with Exeter after the early euphoria of the merger,. Keith would smile and chuckle as the time commitment rose to many hours per month; as it happens, I would not have had it any other way! It was a great honour to award his FCSM formally at Graduation a few years back and I got that famous smile when I reminded him of the 'one meeting a year' comment.

    Tony Batchelor

  8. Hi Barry,
    I came across the news of Keith's passing somewhat indirectly. I was informed on Thursday of Alan Bromley's passing by David Burkitt, the Chairman of the Carn Brea Mining Society, or which I am an active member in my retirement. An Internet search for information about Alan, whom I didn't know personally, found your obituary for him on MEI Blog. I was shocked to read your reference in that item to Keith's passing in August. Although I keep in touch with CSM to an extent through the Cornish Institute of Engineers and Cornwall Industrial Trust, no-one had mentioned Keith. I didn't know that he was ill.

    I first met Keith in 1988 on an IMM visit to CSM at Trevenson, where he was Deputy Principal to Peter Hackett. My next meeting was when I took on the role of Research Development Manager for the Waste Test and Research Centre project at CSM from 1999 to 2001, a 2-year ERDF project. As a mineral processing scientist with no experience of grant-funded projects, I struggled. In spite of my poor performance, Keith was kind and helpful to me. I was able to return to CSM as a Teaching Fellow for two years from 2003 to 2005 and be a Research Assistant after that for a year or so.

    I remember Keith as a friendly, approachable man in spite of his elevated positions in the university compared to mine. I am sorry that he will not be present at any more gatherings at the Victor Phillips Memorial Lectures.

    Steve Barber

  9. Hi Barry, really sad news about Keith passing away. I have so many good and lasting memories of Keith and others like yourself made my time at CSM great. He gave me a lot inspiration to be a geologist and I still one after 22 years following graduation. Thanks again for sharing. All the best, Martin Griffin, BEng, ACSM (1995), CEng, CGeol

  10. I was trying to trace a person who telephoned me and left a wrong number, saw something interesting about a piece of gear called a reflux concentrator (no, not a flux capacitor, although I would like to find one of them too...), and somehow ended up at this page to see the news of Keith Atkinson's passing a few months ago (plus more interesting news on other matters - thanks Barry Wills and others). Despite being a mining engineer from Camborne School of Mines (graduating in 1978), I have had an almost lifelong interest in geology and mineralogy, and my time at Camborne with Alan Bromley and Keith Atkinson, not to mention Lesley Atkinson in the museum certainly reinforced my interest in those disciplines. Keith was actually my tutor although I spent little time with him for that particular purpose. My enduring memory of Keith's role as my tutor was when he told me that I should not really have passed my second year but they had let me through, more or less to give me the chance to continue. When I got to the final year exams however, Keith's words echoed in my ears and I had a sort of epiphany, realised that I did not wish to waste 3 years of my life, studied hard and surprised the staff with such a turn-around that I was awarded a commendation for an ordinary degree, the only person who received that in my year as far as I know. Vale (goodbye) Keith.


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