in memoriam - Georges Aubert (1913 - 2006)
Georges Aubert died on 6th September 2006 after a long career devoted entirely to the study of soils. Following his studies at Agro and a period of military service he chose a career as a researcher in Agronomy at IRA (the predecessor to INRA). Together with Stephane Henin he became involved in the soils laboratory which Albert Demolon had recently established at Versailles. Within the Laboratory he was given responsibility for the Pedology section, the aim of which was to provide a scientific basis to the study of soils which up to that time was not specifically focused and was regarded as a branch of agrochemistry.
This was the beginning of a long career in research and teaching where he combined his strong scientific background and his particular enthusiastic personal approach to his subject. From his early days at Versailles, Aubert approached his task with characteristic enthusiasm and diligence. Often undertaking his field excursions and observations of the land by bicycle, he completed the very general surveys begun by Agafonoff (1936), Erhard (1935) and Oudin (1936).
These surveys provided the opportunity to observe soils in the field as they occurred. From his base in Versailles he naturally travelled extensively in the Paris Basin focusing on the silts found on the loess plateaux, giving special attention to this type of soil, sol lessive, which was not envisaged in Dokuchaev’s classification. This work was later completed by Marcel Jarmagne in 1973.
His favourite area from this period was the West of France (Brittany, Anjou and Normandy), and this perhaps explains why the first pedological map of France at 1:1M, published in 1952 was that for the North West in which so much of his work had been centred. During the World Congress of Soil Science held in Paris in 1956, he prepared the field excursion to this part of France.
At the same time as pursuing his work in France he was concerned with the overseas territories of France. In 1937 he was made responsible, in Algeria, for the production of the first map of ‘The soils of the irrigated edge of the Plains of Relizane’ which was complete in 1959 by Jean Boulaine. It was during this time that he became aware of saline soils and the processes of salinisation in relation to irrigation in dry regions. He became an active participant in the pedology of Mediterranean soils, this continuing throughout his life through ORSTOM and UNESCO. With encouragement from the Academy of Sciences, Aubert became a driving force in the Academy of Overseas Sciences and began to focus on a wider range of soils from the colonies. This work was synthesised in a bibliographic summary on the Soils of Overseas France published in 1941.
It is not surprising therefore that he was actively involved in the establishment of the Pedology Section of the Office of Colonial Research (becoming later ORSTOM, then IRD), and he was at the core of this section for the next 40 years.
This was a fascinating time for pedologists because relatively little was known about the soils of tropical regions. Aubert began his work by identifying the main types of soil and with other pedologists developed a mapping system which could be readily applied to the French Overseas Territories.
In addition to this contribution to Soil Science, it should also be recognised Aubert’s enormous contribution in establishing the teaching of Pedology in the Universities and the Ecoles superieures agronomiques (with the exception of Nancy where Pedology was taught in the School of Water and Forests).
This programme was very comprehensive and included a period of field-based study in one of the French Overseas Territories. This training programme provided many soil scientists for ORSTOM, CIRAD, INRA, CNRS, etc. Aubert’s enthusiasm for soils and soil science was a key element in attracting young scientists to the subject.
Based on his extensive knowledge of soils from many parts of the world, he proposed a new approach to the general classification of soils which he called ‘morphogenetic’, linking genetic evolution, from knowledge of processes, with morphological characteristics of soil profiles.
A first draft was presented together with Philippe Duchaufour at the 1956 WCSS, the final version being completed in 1963. This was the foundation for the French Classification, itself the forerunner of the Soil Study and Pedology Map service of France of which he was the President of the Scientific Committee with Marcel Jamagne as Director.
This illustrates the enormous contribution Georges Aubert has made to Soil Science and the study of soils. He was elected to the Academy of Agriculture in 1954 and was President in 1970. From 1965 he was a member of the Overseas Academy of Sciences and was President in 1985. He was very active in UNESCO and ISSS, where he was Chair of Commission V (Genesis of Soils) between 1960 and 1964, and was subsequently elected a Honorary Member of ISSS.
The death of Georges Aubert is a major loss to Soil Science, but he leaves behind him a record of his knowledge and understanding of the subject, both through the published information and through the many present-day soil scientists who benefited directly from his teaching or the framework for soil science teaching he established.
from the obituary written in French by Georges Pedro