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Michael Peter (Mike) Coward, 1945 - 2003

Professor Mike Coward died on 16 July 2003, three weeks after his 58th birthday. He was known across the world for his innovative thinking and creativity in structural geology. To his colleagues he was an engine of original thought and a committed enemy of conservative and established ways of doing things. He had a natural instinct to overturn conventional ideas. To his many students he is a legend. His approach, both to Earth science and to life in general profoundly affected and lives on in very many of them. To his friends, Mike was a wonderful mixture of warmth, energy and contrariness - full of fun and wit (especially in miserable or tough situations), quick to laugh and - at least in earlier days - to sing.

Mike was born in Farnworth, Lancashire. He entered Imperial College in 1963, a time when the geology department there was one of the best in the world. John Ramsay, John Sutton and Janet Watson were among the giants on whose shoulders Mike stood in later life. He graduated in 1966 and stayed on to do a PhD on the Lewisian rocks of the Outer Hebrides. The magic of the Hebrides stayed with him for the rest of his life. He loved the people, their songs and their attitude to life. After his PhD in 1969, a volcano-watching trip around the Andes was followed by a year with a mining company in Australia - and by the transformation of a previously emaciated student into the well fed figure most of us remember.

Mike returned to Britain, met Robert Shackleton and, like others, fell under the great man's spell. He became Shackleton's research assistant at Leeds, heading up the African Institute's research project on the Limpopo Belt of southern Africa. Now in his element, he began to have a major impact on the Leeds department and British geology in general. He became a lecturer, his research broadened (Damaran, Himalayas, Caledonides), his research students grew in number and, fired by his enthusiasm, minibus loads of undergraduates flooded the structurally interesting parts of the British Isles and filled the lecture theatres of Burlington House and the Royal Society to bursting point.

From Dave Elliot, Mike developed an interest in 'thin-skinned' tectonics and realised that the application of these ideas to the Moine Thrust Zone would transform our understanding of that structure. It did. The Moine Thrust became a training ground for a dozen or so PhD students and a host of undergraduates.

Always quick and efficient at documenting his ideas, Mike began writing papers at an astonishing rate They always presented an innovative approach or a new vision - he developed his own new concepts and avidly applied, adapted and transformed the ideas of others. Leeds buzzed, as did the Tectonic Studies Group of this Society. Even a serious accident on the Karakoram highway was used to advantage as the X-ray of a broken leg bone was used to help illustrate fracture theory.

In 1985 Mike was appointed to the H H Read Chair of Geology at Imperial College. The research areas burgeoned - China, Latin America, the Alps - research students prospered and the MSc course in geology was broadened to include topics like seismic interpretation and basin analysis, topics relevant to the oil industry for which he was now consulting more and more.

In 1987 he married Alison Ries who was then working for the Earth Science Resources Institute (ESRI). They jointly set up a consultancy (Ries-Coward Associates), which grew and prospered as more and more oil and mining companies recognised the need for the sort of regional structural geology that Mike could do so well. In 1997 he retired early from Imperial College and devoted himself entirely to Ries-Coward Associates and - even though he remained an Emeritus Professor there - it was now industry that benefited from his insight and energy. Ever an enthusiastic traveller, he hardly ever seemed to be 'off the road'. It did nothing to reduce his creativity.

In addition to a very large number of confidential reports compiled for industry, Mike wrote in all 366 scientific papers, all with something new and interesting to say. He edited (and frequently initiated) 10 special publications of this society (some with Alison Ries) and co-authored two chapters of the state of the art Millennium Atlas of the North Sea. He lectured widely, gave training courses in structural geology across the world, and revolutionised gold exploration by applying aspects of oil-related tectonic thinking that were completely new to it.

Mike's ability to draw geological sections was outstanding. He had an acute grasp of his geographical orientation and, on motorized field traverses, he could draw, with his chewed-up pencil and at incredible speed, long continuous structural sections which made perfect sense regardless of the bends in the road. Although sometimes famously light on stratigraphy, his sections have a distinctive flair and a style that lives on in the sections now drawn by his best students. I do not know if he ever realised this. Had he done so, I think he would have seen it for what it is - the deepest of compliments - but he would never have said a word about it.

Rod Graham