Augusto Gansser, 1910-2012

March 15, 2012

According to science journalist Simone Ulmer, Augusto Gansser was "one of the last true adventurers who made his passion his profession".

The geologist, researcher, teacher and explorer studied at the University of Zürich. Upon completing his doctorate in 1936, he joined the first Swiss geological expedition to the Himalayas and Southern Tibet. It was on this expedition that Professor Gansser became the first man to study the geology of Tibet's sacred Mount Kailas by breaking away from the main group and disguising himself among Buddhist pilgrims, concealing his notebook, compass, camera and geologist's hammer beneath his Tibetan chuba.

He took geological samples and made field sketches that he would later include in his books. But it was his discovery of ophiolitic rocks and his descriptions of the Indus-Yarlung Tsangpo suture - a fault zone in the Himalayas - that would become instrumental in explaining the origin of the central Asian mountain belts.

The following year he married Linda Biaggi and accepted a job as a prospector for Shell Oil. He then moved to Iran, where he was appointed chief geologist of the National Iranian Oil Company. His structural mapping helped lead to the discovery of oil in the Qom region. Despite one of the drillings leading to environmental disaster, Professor Gansser was offered a medal by the Shah of Iran for finding the reserve - although the award was blocked by the Swiss ambassador to the country.

In 1958, Professor Gansser returned to Switzerland for concurrent professorships at ETH Zürich-Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (where he remained until his retirement in 1977) and his alma mater.

Ms Ulmer, who met Professor Gansser to interview him shortly before he turned 100, said he "perhaps was not an easy character", and was a man who put his profession first.

"At the same time, he was a charismatic person who fascinated other people," she said.

Jean-Pierre Burg, professor at the Institute of Geology at ETH, who first met Professor Gansser in 1981, said the Tibetan and Nepali people were in awe of him when he returned there in the 1960s.

"He was a white-bearded man in his fifties and would patiently let local...people come to touch the beard, [which was] a sign of wisdom there," he said.

Peter Brack, lecturer in earth sciences at ETH, said that as a young geology student he had attended the professor's lectures, which were "truly remarkable because Gansser used to draw geological sections across two blackboards walking back and forth changing hands", a method made possible by his ambidexterity.

Professor Gansser died on 9 January and is survived by two sons and three daughters.

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