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Notable Local Geologists: Marjorie Sweeting

Marjorie Mary Sweeting (1920–1994)

Karst Geomorphologist

Marjorie Sweeting was a keen potholer and one way in which she introduced students to karst was to take them caving.  Internationally admired for her academic prowess, her lifelong study of limestone formations ranged from Yorkshire to China.


Born in 1920, the daughter of a geology lecturer at Imperial College, London, Marjorie Sweeting read geography at Newnham College, Cambridge. She rowed in the Cambridge Women's Blue Boat but still managed to gain top marks in the Geography Tripos. Unable to continue her studies during World War II she went to Denbigh, North Wales as a geography teacher at Howells School. She also apparently worked for the Physical Laboratory, probably, like many other geographers, contributing to the war effort, and in 1943 her article ‘Wave trough experiments on beach profiles’ was published in ‘The Geographical Journal’.


In 1945 Sweeting returned to Newnham to study for her PhD on ‘The Landforms of the Carboniferous Limestone of the Ingleborough District, Northwest Yorkshire’, travelling over the moors on a bicycle to do her fieldwork.

She became a Research Fellow at Newnham between 1948 and 1951 and then moved to Oxford as a Fellow and Tutor at St Hugh's College. In 1953 she was appointed to a university lectureship and was given a personal Readership in 1977 in recognition of her achievements. Sweeting was one of a very few women to hold both College and University posts in Geography and was a strong advocate of scientific research in what was a rather traditional and male-dominated School. Her researches were field based and her measurement and analysis of erosion and dissolution processes both in the field and the laboratory laid the scientific foundations of karst geomorphological studies. She was also involved in a commission investigating human impact on karst.


From 1977, when she led the initial expedition, Sweeting worked extensively on the karst landforms of China. There was plenty of scope – karst covers about one seventh of the country, over five hundred thousand square kilometres.  This was the first study of the karst regions of China by a western geomorphologist.


Sweeting’s association with the Royal Geographical Society’s Expeditions Advisory Centre encouraged many students to pursue their researches abroad. She was herself Programme Director of the Landform and Hydrology Survey for the RGS expedition in 1977–78 to Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak, which hosts dramatic 50m-high karst pinnacles or ‘karren’ around the Melinau limestone peaks of Gunung Api and G. Benarat. The Park also hosts an extensive network of vast caves which she joined the teams in exploring when opportunity permitted.


Sweeting and her many research students did much to bring Oxford Geography, as well as karst geomorphology, onto the broader international stage of Earth Science. Her commitment to international fieldwork, collaboration and exchange of ideas was exceptional. In 1964 she led a field symposium to the north of England and showed off its karst landforms to an international audience. In the mid-1970s she became a chair of the British Geomorphological Research Group, the first woman to do so. Her influential ‘Karst Landforms’ was published in 1972 but she worked in polar ice fields and deserts as well as in karst terrains. She published research on Spitzbergen glaciers, New Zealand, Australia, the USA, Mexico, Belize, Jamaica, Canada and South Africa, as well as on Britain, China and Sarawak, and lectured in many of these places.


After retirement, Marjorie Sweeting continued her research in China which culminated in ‘Karst in China: its Geomorphology and Environment’, the manuscript being published in 1995, shortly after her death. A special issue of ‘Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie’ on ‘Tropical and subtropical karst’ was published in her honour in 1997. She was probably the best known and most influential woman geomorphologist of her time.

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