Watson, Janet Vida (1923–1985)

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Watson, Janet Vida (1923–1985)

English geologist . Born on September 1, 1923, in Hampstead, London, England; died on March 29, 1985, in Ashtead, England; daughter of David Meredith Seares Watson (a paleontologist) and Katherine Margarite Watson; graduated from Reading University, 1943; Imperial College in London, Ph.D., 1949; married John Sutton (a geologist), in 1949; children: two daughters (both died at birth).

Studied some of the world's most ancient rocks; wrote two foundation texts in the study of geology, Introduction to Geology (1962) and Beginning Geology (1966); served as first woman president of the Geological Society of London (1982–84).

Janet Vida Watson was born in 1923 into an intellectually stimulating English household. Her father David Meredith Seares Watson was both a vertebrate paleontologist and a professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at the University of London, while her mother Katherine Margarite Watson had engaged in embryological research prior to their marriage. Janet excelled in her studies at Reading University, from which she graduated with first-class honors in biology and geology in 1943.

After graduation, Watson worked as a researcher on chicken growth and diet, but boredom led her first to teaching at a girls' school and then to the field of geology by the end of World War II. She attended London's Imperial College, where H.H. Read convinced her to undertake a study of the Lewisian gneisses, the oldest rocks of the British Isles. The unique nature of the rocks required that Watson and fellow researcher John Sutton create a new technique in geological research, for which they were commended by the Geological Society of London in 1951. Watson and Sutton were married in 1949 and continued their professional partnership throughout their lives. Having already earned her Ph.D., Watson received a senior studentship in 1951 that enabled her to continue studying the Lewisian while also embarking on a study of ancient rocks in Tanzania.

Watson's groundbreaking work in geology earned her a position as Read's assistant in 1952. Her fascination with the geological problems of these ancient rocks often combined with her interests in Scotland, mineralization, heat flow through the Earth's crust, and geochemistry, and her expertise produced two foundation texts in the field of geology: Introduction to Geology (1962) and Beginning Geology (1966). She wrote the former with Read 12 years before she became a professor herself, joining her husband who became chair of the geology department at Imperial College in 1958.

Watson was co-recipient with her husband of the Bigsby medal and the Lyell medal from the Geological Society of London, and in 1982 was elected the society's first female president. Soon thereafter, she became vice-president and council member of the Royal Society. In 1983, her analytical skills led to an important study in which she reversed the accepted hypothesis for uranium deposits in Italy, and she presented numerous papers to professional societies on her findings. She died two years later, after a painful illness.


The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

The Dictionary of National Biography, 1981–1985. Edited by Lord Blake and C.S. Nicholls. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Judith C. Reveal , freelance writer, Greensboro, Maryland

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Watson, Janet Vida (1923–1985)

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