Professor Michael O'Hara



Specialist Subject(s):

Michael (“Mike”) John O’Hara was one of the leading petrologists of his generation. It has been said that modern igneous petrology and geochemistry would not be the same without Mike’s many discoveries, creative efforts, and deep insights. He pioneered the use of experimental and theoretical petrology to unravel the processes involved in the formation of the ocean crust from the underlying mantle. He was also one of the original Apollo scientists who investigated the rocks returned from the Moon. He was awarded  the Urchison Medal of the Geological Society of London and both the  N. L. Bowen and Hess Medals of the American Geophysical Union for his contributions to petrology and his “outstanding achievements in research of the constitution and evolution of the Earth and other planets”.

Mike was born in Sydney, Australia in 1933. This led Ted Ringwood, his great Australian rival in subsequent debates on the origin of the Moon, to threaten “to get his passport revoked”. The family moved to England when Mike was just one year old. At the outbreak of war in 1939 Mike’s father was stationed in Pwllheli in north Wales where he was brought up.  On Good Friday, 1945 his Mother took him to the funeral of David Lloyd George on the banks of the River Dwyfor near Llanystumdwy in Eifonydd, north Wales. This was to presage a long association with Wales and lifelong support for the Welsh Rugby team.

Mike went up to Cambridge in 1952 and joined the Spitsbergen expedition in 1953. This started a life-long love of mountaineering. He was persuaded to follow a career in Geology rather than becoming a mountaineering instructor by Stuart Agrell and studied for his PhD at Cambridge on the high pressure-high temperature Scourie gneiss under  C.E.Tilley. He moved to Edinburgh in 1958 to continue his research with Arthur Holmes and Fred Stewart. In 1962 1963 he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship at the Geophysical Laboratory at the Carnegie Institute in Washington. He spent the year with Frank Schairer and Hat Yoder. He returned to Edinburgh in 1963 where he established a high pressure-high temperature laboratory to study igneous petrology. He was awarded a personal Chair in Edinburgh in 1970 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

In 1978 he moved to Aberystwyth where he chaired the Geology Department.  He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1981. He spent two years at the Sultan Qaboos University, Oman in 1988-1990 before moving to Cardiff as a Distinguished Research Professor in 1994.  At Cardiff he spearheaded a new world-class petrology group that included inter alia Julian Pearce, Yaoling Niu and Chris Macleod. He wrote that “an outstanding late-career opportunity at Cardiff, masterminded by Dave Rickard ….. illuminated my last decade”.

Mike O’Hara was a full member of the University Grants Committee (UGC) and chaired the UGC Earth Science Review National Committee during 1986-1988, which shaped the modern form of UK University geoscience. His contribution to the Cardiff School of Earth and Ocean Sciences helped establish this department as a major international centre for research and teaching in the Earth Sciences.

Michael John O’Hara’s scientific success lay in his vision and an approach that did not follow bandwagons but continually challenged tradition and authority.

He was a likeable and approachable man who hid his great scholarship and intense concern about the subject under a veneer of humor. Many Earth Scientists worldwide owe much to his unstinting encouragement and advice.  He will be much missed.

– David Rickard FLSW