Keith Clayton was born on 25 September 1928 and educated at Bedales School in Hampshire before going on to study geography at the University of Sheffield. After completing his undergraduate degree in 1949, he remained at the institution for an MSc in 1951 and a PhD in 1958, although he pursued these qualifications in parallel with work as a demonstrator at the University of Nottingham (1949-51), a break for national service in the Royal Engineers (1951-53) and the first steps in his academic career.
Starting as a lecturer in geography at the London School of Economics (1953-64), Professor Clayton secured a visiting post at the State University of New York at Binghamton from 1960 to 1962, and was promoted to reader at the LSE in 1964. In 1960, he set up GeoAbstracts, an indexing service designed to increase awareness of papers by academics in geographical and environmental fields.
After 15 years at the LSE, Professor Clayton moved to the University of East Anglia, where he remained for the rest of his working life. He was founding dean and one of the first professors in the School of Environmental Sciences (1967-93). In 1971, he followed this by creating the influential Climatic Research Unit. While continuing to carry out research on glaciers and coastal erosion, making early use of satellite technology to track changes in the Earth’s surface, he was pro vice- chancellor (1971-73) and director of the Centre of East Anglian Studies (1974-81).
Today, environmental science is mainstream, but 45 years ago climate change, global warming and depleted ozone layers had yet to become a matter of wide public discussion and concern. Julian Andrews, current head of the School of Environmental Sciences, praised Professor Clayton for his boldness in “breaking the traditional mould of single-discipline science and actively seeking a new interdisciplinary approach to the study of the planet and its people”.
His research, Professor Andrews added, put him “truly in the vanguard of ‘modern geomorphology’…His energy and enthusiasm for his science, the school and UEA were impressive and infectious and while [he was] unapologetically outspoken, at times combative, even exasperating, his leadership was dynamic and inspirational.”
On the wider public stage, Professor Clayton served on the Natural Environment Research Council, the National Radiological Protection Board and the University Grants Committee, his work for the last of these gaining him a CBE in 1984.
Professor Clayton died on 12 February and is survived by his wife Jenny, a stepson, and three sons and a daughter from a previous marriage.