Dr. John Watson Cowie, Ph.D. F.G.S.
17thSeptember 1919 — 25th January 2012

Obituary by his son Ian Cowie


Born in Wootton Bassett, the second child of the Rev. Richard and Annie Cowie, in the Manse, which is directly opposite the Methodist Church in the main street of Wootton Bassett. John was born into a Primitive Methodist family and his father came from a coal mining background in Hetton-le-Hole, County Durham. Richard Cowie had started work in Eppleton Colliery at the age of 11. Annie had also come from a Methodist background, her father was the principal of Hartley Hall Methodist College, Manchester. Life in a primitive Methodist household was austere, teetotal, gambling was forbidden and material possessions eschewed.

John had a happy childhood with his older sister Kathleen, but at the age of 7 the family moved to another parish in Leeds as Methodist ministers were expected to move parishes every few years. Here, John unfortunately caught pneumonia, which was a serious illness before the advent of antibiotics. His father applied for another parish in order to move away from the polluted atmosphere of Leeds and they settled in Ryde on the Isle of Wight.

At the age of 13 he went to Kingswood School at Bath, which had close connections with the Methodist Church. He had many memories of Bath in the 1930's and of long walks in the area to places such as Castle Coombe.

At the age of 17 years, in 1936, his father was taken ill suddenly, after getting soaked in a rainstorm whilst visiting his parishioners. He died shortly afterwards and John was left as head of the household. John had passed his School Certificate exams well and was expected to do well in his Higher School Certificate which would have given him the opportunity to go to University. Kingswood School were prepared to let him stay at the school without fees, but my father faced pressure from other members of the family for him to finish school and find employment to support his mother. He was found an apprenticeship at a local engineering factory of British Thomson-Houston. (BTH), which specialised in the production of steam turbines and electrical equipment. Apprenticeships at BTH were well sought after and Rugby Technical College was the first college to have day release for apprentices.

In 1941 John volunteered to join the Royal Navy Fleet Arm although he was in a reserved occupation. He initially joined as a rating but was quickly identified as a potential candidate for a commission. He was successful and was sent for aircrew training in Trinidad. Here he was trained as an Observer in twin-seater aircraft. In the Fleet Air Arm aircraft were smaller and required observers to perform a number of roles. They would be navigator, wireless operator, air gunner, bomb aimer, torpedo launcher and observer. The phrase in the Fleet Air Arm was that "The brains were in the back!"

John returned to the UK in 1942 and embarked on HMS Canton at Clydebank. HMS Canton was classed as an Armed Merchant Cruiser and was a converted P&O cruise liner. It was equipped with a hanger and a single engine Kingfisher aircraft. The Canton was bound for the Indian Ocean in order to protect shipping. One of its roles was to search for German surface raiders and meant that the aircraft was expected to search large areas of the ocean. The area of patrol covered the whole of the Indian Ocean from the African coast to the East Indies. The Canton had been built as an ocean liner for the Far East and accommodation was spacious with large fridges which meant that the food was always fresh. This period of the war for my father was not very eventful in terms of action but they may have prevented surface raiders like the Graf Spey from venturing into that theatre of war. The Canton was lightly armed and the plan was that if they did spot a German ship they would sail straight at it and present the smallest target as possible, transmitting their position to larger naval ships who could then more effectively attack these German raiders. The Kingfisher aircraft had little armament and was designed as a spotter and rescue aircraft. It would have been a suicide attack for HMS Canton.

In January 1944 John transferred to an air base Katukurunda, Ceylon. He was flying Barracuda and Albercores on patrols across the Indian Ocean and on training exercises.His squadron was embarked on the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious. There may have been little action but naval flying was hazardous and he lost a great many of his comrades in air accidents. He was involved in a number of accidents himself and a series he told me of involved a Flt Lt Hetherington his pilot. He later became the first Chairman of the British Gas Corporation when it was formed in 1973 to provide national distribution of North Sea Gas. The aircraft was a Supermarine Walrus which was a slow seaplane with a "pusher" type propeller. It was launched from a ship borne catapult and then would be recovered with a crane back onto the ship. Landing was particularly difficult as the approach speed on touchdown had to be correct as either the plane would bounce on the water or pitch pole into the sea and end up upside down. On two occasions the pilot made his approach too slow and despite my father's shouted instruction for him to speed up the plane ended up upside down. My father on both occasions escaped as he was a good swimmer. Hetherington, who was not such a good swimmer, had to be rescued by my father on two occasions.

On the 18th September 1944 he embarked with 822 Squadron on HMS Victorious as part of Operation Cockpit to attack Sigili in Sumatra, Indonesia. The attack was on the port and oil facilities which were occupied by the Japanese at that time. The operation was to provide a diversion away from the British Army's offensive in Burma and in support of an American offensive in what is now Papua New Guinea. On this occasion they were flying in Barracudas with Corsair fighters as escorts. The raid was a success with little opposition. John once recalled an incident whereby they spotted what they thought was a column of marching soldiers. They went in to attack with the rear machine gun but as they passed overhead and as John was getting ready to use the tail gun he saw that the column had disappeared into the verges of the road and that a coffin was left in the middle of the road!

In December 1944 John returned to the United Kingdom as his tour of duty in the Far East had come to an end. He was posted to Ronaldsway, in the Isle of Man, where he was training aircrew in air gunnery. It was at this time he met June, a local girl from the nearby town of Port St Mary. He was later posted to other parts of the UK and was being prepared to return to the Far East to continue the war against the Japanese. This all came to an end with Hiroshima and VJ day in August 1945. John was not immediately demobbed and was involved in the running down of Fleet Air Arm installations around the country.

In 1946 he returned to the Isle of Man and married June. Shortly after, they came to Bristol and John began to study at the University. He started at a time when a lot of young men were resuming their education after war service and formed several close and long-term friendships with others who had had similar experiences. He eventually settled on a Geology degree and found the subject to his liking. For many years his exam marks were not exceeded by following students.

In 1949 as part of his PhD thesis he travelled to East Greenland to study the Cambrian and Ordovician rocks and fossils in that area. He went to Greenland as part of the Prof. Lauge Koch organisation. Koch was involved in over 50 years of exploration of Greenland and was responsible for 100's of scientists studying the geography, flora and fauna of that island. My father started a long association with Arctic exploration and returned to Greenland and Arctic Canada many times.

He worked closely with the Inuit people and spent 3 months with a colleague and an Inuit in the polar wastes. They obtained fresh meat by hunting the Musk Ox and Arctic hare. This was before the days of radio, helicopters and light aircraft. Their only means of return was by appointment, on a date when an open boat was sailed by the Inuit to come and collect them. He also overwintered one year and spent a lot of time dog sledding putting food caches out for the summer exploration season. It was nothing to wake up in the morning to find the footprints of Polar Bears surrounding their tents.

In 1956 his work was recognised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh when he was awarded the Bruce Medal for his investigations into the stratigraphy and palaeontology of Greenland . He was also invited to be a member of the Expeditions committee of the Scott Polar Research Institute to give advice and help to potential Polar explorers.

In 1953 John was awarded his PhD and obtained a position as a Lecturer at the University of Bristol in the Geology Department. He later became Head of the joint Geography/Geology school and also lectured in the extra mural department, teaching mature students at various towns across the Westcountry such as Bath, Bristol and Chippenham. John became involved with the Bristol Naturalists Society and ran field trips across the Westcountry and helped in getting the Avon Gorge recognised as a site of Special Scientific Interest. He was also a trustee of Steepholm Island for a short while.

John continued in the Geology Department in Bristol, concentrating on teaching and his own research. His particular specialty was invertebrate palaeontology of the Cambrian and Pre-Cambrian era. He did not pursue a role as head of department or to develop his career in other places and came to realise that his interests lay in advancing knowledge. He was a prolific publisher of scientific papers and a search of Google scholar will reveal many that are still available today.

He developed his career in the international sphere by becoming involved in the I.U.G.S. (International Union of Geological Society) which is a part of UNESCO. In the 1970’s he became secretary of an international working group who were attempting to set the standard of time for the history of the Earth. This involved him in a large number of meetings and field trips to many parts of the world, Siberia, China, Brazil, Canada and many more.

In 1982 he retired from the staff of the University although he continued with an association being given desk space with which to continue his research. He became involved further with UNESCO with the designation of Geological World Heritage Sites across the world.

At the age of 75 he finally retired from academic life and pursued his interests in photography and travel with June in their caravan. He will be remembered for his devotion to academic excellence and the values that anything is possible with the right amount of application and hard work. His work is still continuing today at the Museum of Wales in Cardiff. He donated his fossil collection to the museum and new species of trilobites are still being discovered. See webpage

Husband of June Cowie, Father of Ian (Glenys) and Andrew (Michelle), Grandfather of Mark, Marion, Richard and Jean-Michael.


Born 17th September 1919 Wootton Bassett, Wilts

Moved to Leeds at 7 years old

Moved to Ryde, Isle of Wight

Kingswood School, Bath

1936 Father Richard Cowie dies when John was 17 yrs old.

Removed from Kingswood School and starts an apprenticeship at BTH, Rugby

1941 volunteers for the Fleet Air Arm

Aircrew training in Trinidad

1941 embarks HMS Canton for Indian Ocean patrol

1944 RNAS Katukurunda, Ceylon

1944 Return to UK RNAS Ronaldsway, Isle of Man

1945 Hiroshima ends the war and John not deployed to the Far East again

1946 Demobbed from the Navy and marries June. Starts University

1950 First trip to Greenland for PhD thesis work.

1953 Employment as University Lecturer Bristol. Son Richard Ian born

1957 Andrew David second son born

1950's Fieldwork in Greenland and Shropshire

1960's Fieldwork in Canada and NW Scotland

1970's International work with IUGS

1982 Retirement from University staff

1980's International work with UNESCO

1994 Retirement from Academic work