Lawrence Wager (1904–1965)

Professor Michael Winterbottom has crafted a biographical account of a man of derring-do, a true adventurer, academic and the Oxford professor of geology who was to be the first president of the Oxford Geology Group.

When Lawrence Rickard (‘Bill’) Wager was elected to the chair of Geology at Oxford in 1950, he had behind him two feats of high derring-do.

In 1924, N.E. Odell famously saw through his field glasses two tiny figures high up on Mount Everest: George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. They were never seen again. Odell was a geologist by training, but he was an experienced mountaineer too. When a new expedition was mounted in 1933, Wager had equivalent qualifications: a first-class degree in geology from Cambridge, and years of climbing behind him, in Britain and the Alps. The team needed ‘a real geologist to check over Odell’s results’; but Wager was highly enough regarded as a mountaineer to be chosen to accompany Percy Wyn-Harris on the first foray from Camp VI, which had been pitched on the famous Yellow Band, at around 27,300 feet. After eating no more than half a Petit Beurre biscuit each, they set off at 5.45 on the morning of 30 May. On the slabs under the crest of the north-east ridge, Wyn-Harris found an ice-axe, since identified as Irvine’s. The pair then traversed the face and entered the great gully named after E.F. Norton, who had pioneered this route in 1924. Time and the hazardous conditions forced them back at 8573 metres (28,100 feet), about 300 metres ( circa one thousand feet) below the summit. A day later, Frank Smythe and Eric Shipton reached much the same point. No one (except perhaps Mallory and Irvine) ever got higher on the mountain till it was finally climbed, from the Nepal side, in 1952. One thing marked Wager’s feat off from the others’: on the way down, he broke away to climb alone to the ridge, where he had ‘an amazing view’ down the vast south-east face, never seen before by man. When he was examined later, his heart was found to be dilated: not an unusual symptom for men who climbed so high without oxygen. Perhaps not coincidentally, Wager suffered a coronary in 1955, and died of another at the Farmers’ Club in London ten years later.


 Professor Lawrence Wager 



'...His wide-set blue eyes, his beautiful speaking voice; the grey-blue suits, a hand lens always fastened with a bit of string to his waistcoat; his long, purposeful stride in his heavy, black shoes …; the old fawn raincoat and brown trilby hat.'


Professor David Vincent

University of Oxford




Wager wrote up his geological results (though J.M. Scott records that he once declared that ‘he scarcely noticed the type of rock he climbed on so long as it did not break or crumble’). But a second (earlier) expedition was far more important for his career. Following his Cambridge degree, he was lecturer in geology at the University of Reading from 1929. But in 1930 he took time off to join a year-long expedition to East Greenland, which aimed to investigate the possibilities of an air route over the ice cap. Wager did a great deal of sledging and climbing in this little-known region, and in the course of his journeys identified ‘a large number of Tertiary igneous intrusive centres’ from 66 to 69 degrees N. This was his great discovery, the Skaergaard Intrusion, unique for its preservation and ease of examination. He visited Greenland several times, and his many publications on this topic culminated in a monumental book, Layered Igneous Rocks, completed by G.M. Brown, and published after his death, in 1967; Brown described it as ‘firmly rooted among the great classics of geological literature’ (though if you look up the helpful article in Wikipedia on ‘Layered Intrusions’ you will not find it mentioned), covering such phenomena all over the world. It is of local interest that when Wager asked A.F. (Freddie) Wells, the Classics don who was his colleague at University College, Oxford, for advice on the naming of ‘the accumulation of piles of crystals’ ‘in layers of igneous rock differing in mineral content’, Wells came up with the Latin word cumulus, ‘a heap’. The word ‘cumulate’ was coined (consult Challinor’s Dictionary of Geology, ed. Antony Wyatt, ed. 6 [1986], 78-9), and is still in use.









Wager’s job at Reading had been followed (after a break for war service in the R.A.F. photographic interpretation department, partly spent in Arctic Russia) by the chair of geology at Durham (1944-50) and then the move to Oxford. His tenure of the Oxford post was marked by a notable extension of the scope and buildings of the department, and he set up the first British laboratory for isotope geochemistry and radiometric age determination. His strengths lay in inspiring and setting high standards for advanced students, and he built up a powerful graduate school. He was influential in the early days of O.G.G.; and one of his colleagues was Stuart McKerrow, another name gratefully remembered in our group.

This stocky, tough and handsome Yorkshireman was brought up near Hebden Bridge, where his father was a headmaster, and his first geological interests were in local lead mines and the carboniferous limestone of Littondale; he was to own a farmhouse in that valley, and the ashes of his mother (who died when he was eleven) were scattered on Pen-y-ghent. Science was in the family: an uncle had been FRS before him. Wager was a Morris dancer, who met his future wife Phyllis at a dancing week; they were to have five children, and 13 grandchildren. A little book on his life by Jane Hargreaves (1991) is full of fascinating detail: thus, for instance, Wager’s friends included Tensing and, more surprisingly, W.H. Auden. She quotes from David Vincent’s vivid pen-portrait of a remarkable man, though unmistakably one from the past: ‘His wide-set blue eyes, his beautiful speaking voice; the grey-blue suits, a hand lens always fastened with a bit of string to his waistcoat; his long, purposeful stride in his heavy, black shoes …; the old fawn raincoat and brown trilby hat.’ They don’t make geologists like that any more.                    

Mount Everest (Wikimedia Commons)


Wager climbing on Mount Everest
Wager the Everest years

  L. R. Wager 

 Wager climbing Everest 

'Lawrence Wager - "Bill" to his friends - was by any measure one of the most important geologists of his time. His discovery and studies of the Skaergaard Intrusion of East Greenland were a landmark contribution to igneous petrology, and his work, together with that of his students and colleagues contributed to some of the most basic concepts of magmatic differentiation.'

A. R. McBirney

University of Oregon