in memoriam - Prof. Joseph Tinsley (1916-2004)

Professor Joseph Tinsley – Soil scientist who investigated soil organic matter and trained overseas students to work in their native countries

Joseph Tinsley who has died aged 88 after a long illness devoted much of his time during his twenty year tenure of the headship of the small Soil Science Department of the University of Aberdeen to recruiting and training post graduate students from the developing world – Africa, the Indian sub-continent, the Middle and Far East and South America. Many students so trained were equipped to return to their native countries to take appointments in which they could work on problems of food production. To this end Tinsley developed a two-year MSc in Soil Science which comprised a year’s taught course followed by a laboratory based research project that often included fieldwork as well. It was a course that, over the years, attracted a number of post graduate students from within the United Kingdom some of whom went to posts in the developing world. Even many prospective PhD students began with the MSc course and were then upgraded.

Tinsley’s concern for this overseas students went beyond their work in the department. The new students arrived either at the station by the early morning overnight train or by plane at Aberdeen airport. It was a surprise to them to be met by the head of department. Often students from tropical countries arriving in thin shirts and jackets were unaware of what the wind from the North Sea could be like even in October. Tinsley seeing them shivering on the airport tarmac drove them in his familiar minibus to his home. Here he raided his wardrobe to provide them with pullovers, anoraks and even warm underclothes. Then Tinsley, or his wife, would go to the shops later to buy more.

Joseph Tinsley who came from a farming family was born on 24th July 1916 at Greenhill Common Farm, Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire. He was awarded a bursary from his Sixth Form College to Bristol University in 1934 to read physics and chemistry. He recalled walking from Wills’ Hall across the Down in the early morning to the university and taking the tram back in the afternoon ‘for one or two old pennies’. After the first year Tinsley transferred to Reading in order to combine chemistry with basic geology and agricultural science graduating in 1938 with first class honours. On the outbreak of war his work in the agricultural advisory service was declared a reserved occupation and Tinsley spent most of the war years as a chemist based at Wye College monitoring soil fertility levels in Kent, Surrey and Sussex. After 18 years of agricultural depression the content of soil nutrients had declined badly and it was vital that fertilizer from imported raw materials of phosphorus and potassium was rationed to best advantage.

After the war Tinsley returned to Reading University and to its highly regarded Soil Science Department. Here Tinsley was awarded a PhD for studies on the challenging complex problem of the chemical structure of soil organic matter. As a member of staff of this department Tinsley continued his studies in this field and a number of research students worked with him on ‘the great unanswered question’. Among those was John Parsons who later succeeded Tinsley to the Chair at Aberdeen. It was to Aberdeen that Tinsley went in 1960 to the post of Reader and Head of Department where he began his recruitment of overseas students and continued his research on soil organic matter in respect of agricultural manures including the safe use of poultry manure. The department, however, was small in the number of undergraduate and postgraduate students and there were only three or four other academic staff. It suffered from being under-funded and lacked the up-to-date analytical instruments of the time. However, in 1969 the department received full recognition and Tinsley was appointed to a well deserved Chair. He was able to recruit a number of able postgraduates who made valuable contributions to soil science and the department expanded to an academic staff of ten. Yet Tinsley, a caring man, did not allow his researches or desire for academic success to affect his concern for the work and personal welfare of his students or indeed for his young staff who felt as if they belonged to a family.

Tinsley retired in 1981 and stayed in his adopted and much loved city. It was a disappointment to him that government cuts in the 1980s caused a reduction in the department. He was very proud of his students and kept copies of their theses in his study. He followed with much interest their careers particularly those from overseas many of whom kept in touch. His Christian faith and high personal standards shone through all he did.


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Page created: 13.02.2015 | Page updated: 15.02.2015

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