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Geologist Got Caught Between Rocks and a Soft Spot in His Heart

September 12, 1985|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

Early in his climb toward a medical degree, Donald F. McIntyre got detoured by an odd bit of information: He could be a geologist instead.

The surprising, welcome news was imparted by a stranger, a fellow student in one of McIntyre's pre-med classes at the University of Edinburgh.

To this day the 62-year-old Scot expresses wonderment and delight at the unexpected outcroppings of people and opportunities that led to his being exactly what he wants to be.

He became a professor of geology, first at Edinburgh and then at Pomona College in Claremont, where he has been chairman of the geology department for 25 of his 31 years there.

Among the students in the first freshman class he taught at Edinburgh, McIntyre said, was the stranger who had first told him about geology. He had dropped out of school and returned several years later to study under McIntyre.

"It's amazing how you can be influenced by someone who knows nothing about you," said McIntyre, still excited. "Until that man talked to me, I didn't know what a geologist was. I had no idea you could actually study the mountains I had been climbing, get a degree--and maybe even get a job.

"You must talk to students, and find out why they're doing what they're doing. I'm always so sorry when a senior takes geology and finds he loves it--and it's too late. I was very, very lucky."

Twice named Pomona's Wig Distinguished Professor for teaching excellence, McIntyre this year was one of seven national finalists in a Professor of the Year competition held by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. He was the first Californian to be a finalist. The winner, named in July, was William Marvin Bass III, an anthropologist at the University of Tennessee.

Pomona College Associate Dean Stanton Hales called the geologist "a multifaceted man who has made extraordinary contributions to the college in 31 years, among them achieving international stature as a computer scientist."

Hales said McIntyre single-handedly set up the Pomona College computer system, "volunteering an astonishing amount of time and energy to help his colleagues and students become better computer users."

Some of McIntyre's students, Hales said, "have achieved great fame and importance in the geological world."

McIntyre did not mention computers, honors or students' achievements in an animated conversation in his college office. He talked about luck and amazing coincidences, like the encounters with the stranger who unwittingly headed him into geology.

McIntyre recalled another twist of fate that began in 1951 when, as a young lecturer for the British Assn. for the Advancement of Science, he took visiting geologists to the Scottish Highlands. One of them, Frank Turner of the University of California, invited the Scot to Berkeley and recommended him for an opening at Pomona College. McIntyre was hired by the college president, E. Wilson Lyon, the man credited with the growth of the Claremont Colleges.

Three decades later, McIntyre was invited to be a guest lecturer on the history of geology when Edinburgh University marked its 400th anniversary in 1983.

"There I was, lecturing in the very room where I had learned as a student!" he said. "And seated in that room was E. Wilson Lyon, who just happened to be in Scotland. There was the man who had hired me--without whom I might never have left that room! It was the most extraordinary experience of my life."

McIntyre has climbed the Highlands, the Swiss Alps and the mountains of Southern California.

He is credited with discovering and documenting drawings that had been lost since the late 1700s. They were illustrations for the three-volume Theory of Time and the Earth, master work of the world's first geologist, James Hutton of Edinburgh. McIntyre spent many summers searching for the drawings on the hunch that they might exist in the Scottish state archives. He traced them to the descendants of the artist, John Clerk of Eldin, who eventually found them in the family's vast collection, where they had been hidden from sight for almost two centuries.

McIntyre and his wife, Ann, make frequent trips to their native land with their son, Ewen, 24. Last summer the McIntyres went on a geological excursion in China.

"You can't imagine how exciting geology is," he said. "I'll always follow its developments. It's a good thing I didn't try to be a doctor. I think I would faint if I saw blood."

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