Geoffrey Petts, 1953-2018

Tributes paid to leading river scientist who led University of Westminster for more than a decade

October 11, 2018
Geoff Petts

A leading river scientist who became the vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster has died.

Geoffrey Petts was born in Sandgate, Kent in 1953 and was educated at Ashford Grammar School before studying physical geography and geology at the University of Liverpool (1974). After a PhD in fluvial geomorphology, completed at the University of Southampton (1978), he began his career at the Dorset Institute of Higher Education (now Bournemouth University, 1978-79) and then became lecturer in geography at Loughborough University, where he was later promoted to chair of physical geography (1989).

In 1994, Professor Petts moved to the University of Birmingham as director of the new interdisciplinary Centre for Environmental Research and Training. He went on to become head of the School of Geography and Environmental Sciences (1997) and then a pro vice-chancellor (2001-07) until he left to become vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster. He was to remain there until retirement in January this year.

An outstanding river scientist, Professor Petts was a pioneer in taking interdisciplinary approaches to both fundamental and applied issues. His early work on dams and geomorphology led to a landmark book, Impounded Rivers (1984). He founded the international journal River Research and Applications in 1985 and served as its editor-in-chief for 31 years. A recent book dedicated to his work, River Science: Research and Management for the 21st Century (edited by David Gilvear, Malcolm Greenwood, Martin Thomas and Paul Wood, 2016), notes that “without his visionary ideas river science would not be as advanced as it is today”.

At Westminster, Professor Petts was committed to providing access to all who could benefit from learning opportunities and championed the engagement of first-generation students. He expanded the Westminster International University in Tashkent, revivified a historic connection with the Smithsonian Institution and forged a new partnership with Johns Hopkins University to consolidate links with London museums and galleries. He also led the Podium project, coordinating the involvement of higher and further education in the London 2012 Olympics.

Angela Gurnell, professor of physical geography at Queen Mary University of London, described Professor Petts as “a larger-than-life character who always maintained a positive attitude [and] treated everyone equally. An exceptional leader, a great team player [and an] inspirational teacher and speaker.”

Honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the International Society for River Science in 2009, Professor Petts also served as president of the British Hydrological Society (2014-17) and was actively involved in planning its 2018 conference even during his final illness. He died of cancer on 11 August and is survived by his wife Judith, vice-chancellor of the University of Plymouth.

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