Dr Alan Herbert Weir 1929–2009

Originally published in the June 2009 edition of The Auger Membership Magazine

Dr Alan Herbert Weir   20 September 1929 – 19 May 2009

Alan Weir was an able and versatile scientist who joined the Society more than fifty years ago.  After National Service in REME, as Sgt Instructor, Radar, he went to Downing College, Cambridge, where he took a degree in Geology, specializing in Mineralogy.  He came to Rothamsted in 1953, working first in the Pedology Department and then in Soils and Plant Nutrition, retiring in 1989.

Alan changed field three times during his scientific career: initially appointed to measure trace elements in plants and soils, he soon moved on to his real scientific love, soil mineralogy and finally, after the demise of the Pedology Department in 1977, to crop modelling.  When Alan came to Rothamsted (and for a good while afterwards), trace elements in soil were measured on a huge emission spectrograph, using a direct current arc, with the sample placed inside the electrode.  The spectra were recorded on large glass photographic plates and the line densities observed manually.  That Alan could get reliable results is a tribute to his careful attention to detail:  the whole process required great technical skill and was exceedingly tedious.  I suspect he was glad to escape back to mineralogy.

From the late 1950’s, Alan was a key member of the Rothamsted group working on the links between clay mineralogy and soil properties.  This group, founded in the 1930’s, collaborated closely with the Soil Survey of England and Wales in the belief that fundamental studies into the structure and behaviour of clay minerals would help soil surveyors in their work, in turn allowing soil properties to be deduced from soil maps.  The ultimate aim of both organizations was to gather information on soil that could be used to increase agricultural production.  His best paper, published in 1974 with James Rayner, was on the ultra-fine clay fraction from a subsoil of the Denchworth Series.  It was far ahead of its time.  Nowadays ultra-fine clays (where the nano particles lurk) are receiving the attention they deserve.  Loveland, Wood and Weir (Clay Minerals, 1999, vol.34,pp.165-183) give a full account of the work to the Rothamsted Clay Minerals Group, including details of Alan’s work and papers.  He served as honorary Chairman of the Clay Minerals Group and Treasurer of the Mineralogical Society.

Alan’s final career move was to crop modelling and yield analysis.  Always a superb team player, he took a central role in the Rothamsted group set up to investigate the factors that limit crop yield, particularly that of winter wheat.  As any proper soil scientist would expect the most significant single factor turned out to be soil, as defined by Soil Series, but this only accounted for a small part of the yield variance.  Later, a huge multifactorial experiment on contrasting soil types showed that similar yields could be obtained on wide range of soils – provided that the management of both soil and crop was carefully adjusted to match the individual soil.  Alan was also involved in the use of rain shelters to investigate the effects of drou8ght on yield: in deep rooting autumn-sown crops, such as winter wheat, summer drought had a surprisingly small effect.

Alan Weir was a notable sportsman – at school he was Captain of Football and Cricket.  He played football for Falcon, the Cambridge University Team, later tennis, cricket and golf – although he once said he knew no surer way of spoiling a beautiful Saturday morning that a bad round of golf.  He was a church member, sang in two choirs, a man who did many kindnesses, but talked little about them.  At work, he was a kind, shrewd and unpretentious mentor to generations of younger colleagues.  Everyone was pleased when he joined the company, whether for morning coffee at Rothamsted, at the golf clubhouse, or the queue at the fishmongers.  Alan will be greatly missed by his manby friends in the soil community, who send their sympathy to his wife Edna, their four children Mark, Helen, John and Rosemary, and their six grandchildren.

Provided by David Jenkinson and Peter Loveland