Wager, Laurence Rickard

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(b. Batley, Yorkshire, England, 5 February 1904; d, London, England, 20 November 1965)

geology, geochemistry.

L. R. Wager’s parents were from the south of England although he himself was born in Batley, Yorkshire, and always thought of himself as a Yorkshireman. His father, Morton Etherlred Wager, was Cornish and his mother, Adelina Wager, née Rickard, came from Surrey. His father was headmaster of the Hebden Bridge Secondary School, which Wager attended until he was sixteen. From 1920 to 1923 he attended grammar school in Leeds, and then went to Pembroke College, Cambridge, on an open scholarship, In 1934 Wager married Phyllis Margaret Worthington, who gave him every support in his scientific work and took part in the overwintering expedition in East Greenland, during which his most important fieldwork was carried out. The Wagers had two sons and three daughters. Wager was a fellow of the Geological Society of London and a recipient of its Lyell Fund in 1939, Bigsby Medal in 1945, and Lyell Medal in 1962. He served as a vice president of the society in the years 1951–1953 and was elected to the Royal Society in 1946. In addition, he was awarded the Spendiarov Prize at the Eighteenth International Geological Congress in London in 1948, was president of the Mineralogical Society in the years 1960–1963, and was awarded the Polar Medal in 1933 and the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1936. He was instrumental in starting Geochimica et cosmochimica acta in 1950 and Journal of Petrology in 1960, both of which are regarded as the leading journals in their respective fields.

Wager began his scientific career after graduation from Cambridge in 1926, where he obtained firstclass honors in geology. At that time the geology department included Alfred Harker, the reader in petrology, and C. E. Tilley, both of whom undoubtedly had a major influence on Wager’s subsequent scientific interests. It also seems clear that another important ingredient in the shaping of his latter life was his boyhood in the Yorkshire dales and the fact that while at school in Leeds he lived with his uncle, who was a botanist and a fellow of the Royal Society.

Wager’s early work concerned metasomatism at the margin of a basic sill, joint patterns and tectonics in the limestones of northern England, and the beginnings of a regional study near Galway in Eire, but it was while employed at Reading University that he joined the British Arctic Air Route Expedition, which spent 1930 and 1931 in the Angmagssalik area of East Greenland. On this expedition he made important geological observations of regional interest, took part in some epic sledge journeys into the interior, and attempted to climb the area’s highest peak. On this expedition the basis of his most significant research was laid and he returned to the area four times subsequently: in 1932 as part of the Scoresby Sound Committee’s Second East Greenland Expedition, in 1934 on board the ship Pourquoi Pas?, and in the years 1935–1936 and 1953 as leader of his own expeditions. During the 1935–1936 overwintering expedition, fieldwork was carried out on the Skaergaard intrusion, with which his name (along with that of W. A. Deer) has become inextricably associated for subsequent generations of geologists.

East Greenland has an incomparably rugged terrain, extremely demanding of those who conduct fieldwork there without the benefit of powerful ships and helicopters, such as are available today. Wager was unusually well equipped to operate in such an area, having been a leading figure in the Cambridge University Mountaineering Club and having taken part in the attempt on Everest in 1933, when he and Wynn Harris reached a height only surpassed twenty years later by Hillary and Tenzing, who used oxygen, as Wager and Wynn Harris had not.

The Everest interlude demonstrates two features of Wager’s personality that permeated his scientific career: he was capable of immense persistence and his mind never ceased to question the origins of the landscapes about him. He subsequently published a paper on the Yo Ri and Arun gorges and the uplift of the Himalayas that has become a classic. His love of mountaineering was doubtless also a powerful factor in determining his continued interest in East Greenland geology.

Wager is most well known for his work on layered igneous intrusions. The memoir on the Skaergaard igneous intrusion published in 1939 by Wager and Deer was based on fieldwork conducted during the 1935–1936 expedition, fieldwork which has stood the test of time and has proved to be essentially correct. In this work one of the fundamental problems of igneous petrology, the question of how a basaltic magma differentiates in nature under closed system conditions, was addressed. Detailed studies by N. L. Bowen at Princeton had earlier established how basaltic magmas fractionated under experimental conditions, wager and Deer’s study was the first detailed field investigation and was eagerly received because of the light it threw on the origin of granites, a long-standing controversy. This memoir also awakened much interest in similar layered bodies, such as Bushveld in South Africa, Stillwater in Montana, and Muskox in Canada. Skaergaard has remained the best investigated of these bodies and is a standard subject in all igneous petrology texts.

During this period (1929 to 1939) Wager was a lecturer at Reading University, but shortly after the outbreak of World War II in 1939 he was commissioned into the Royal Air Force, serving in the United Kingdom, the Middle East, and Arctic Russia, and was mentioned in dispatches. In 1944 he was released from the R.A.F. and took the chair of geology at Durham University, a post which he held until 1950, when he was made professor of geology at Oxford and fellow of University College.

Wager conducted other important pieces of research in East Greenland and in the Hebrides of northwest Scotland, but subsequent to his active service during the war years, he embarked on extensive geochemical studies and introduced radiometric dating methods into the department at Oxford. This work actually was begun before the war in collaboration with R. L. Mitchell, who used emission spectroscopy for the determination of trace elements. Wager and his coworkers subsequently used neutron activation and isotope dilution in an attempt to document in the very greatest detail and highest precision the behavior of a host of trace elements during magmatic crystallization. Also under Wager’s leadership, Oxford began to date rocks using radiometric methods. While Wager sought to understand the processes going on in magmas, others have used the same methods to understand the ocean floor and the moon, samples of both becoming available during the 1960’s and in 1970. The earlier work of Wager and his co-workers thus paved the way for later explosive growth in trace element and isotope geochemistry.

Wager always resisted the temptation to go into experimental studies, which in the 1950’s were popular among igneous petrologists. He always considered himself an observer of nature and found enough to occupy himself in this role. His perseverance as a mountain climber reflects itself in his scientific work in his single-minded pursuit of specific goals to be achieved using specific methods. In this way, although he was a man of wide interests, he avoided the temptation to spread his efforts too widely and became a leader in his chosen field.


More extensive treatment of Wager’s life and scientific contributions and a list of publications are given by C. K. Brooks in “Geologists and Ideas”, in E. T. Drake and W. M. Jordan, eds., Geological Society of America Centennial Special Volume, I (1985), 237-250; and W. A. Deer in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 13 (1967), 359-385.

C. K. Brooks