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Tributes paid to Dr Graham Chinner

Tributes have been paid to Dr Graham Chinner, Fellow in Earth Sciences, who died on 14 December. Dr Chinner, an Australian, was elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1972.

‘His wisdom, kindness, wit and extraordinary memory will be very much missed,’ said Trinity Fellow, Professor Marian Holness, of the Department of Earth Sciences.

Graham was a metamorphic petrologist, interested in decoding the path taken through pressure-temperature space by rocks caught up in continental collisions such as that happening today between India and the Eurasian continent.

Perhaps his most notable work involved studying the deep roots of the 400 million year old mountain belt now exposed at the surface in Scotland by uplift and erosion.

Professor Holness’ first meeting with Dr Chinner was memorable.

My first encounter with him was on an undergraduate field trip to Scotland, of which my most vivid memory is him clambering to the top of a large rock whence he declaimed a speech from Hamlet before lapsing into more normal prose to explain the geology surrounding us. He waved his hammer round for good effect during the speech…

Dr Chinner crossing a glacier in East Greenland on a geological expedition in 1966. Photo: Prof Holness

Dr Chinner was Curator of the Harker Collection for many years, a collection begun by Alfred Harker in the late nineteenth century, which now rivals the most extensive geological collections in the world. ‘Graham knew the collection inside-out, together with many humorous stories about the people who contributed material to it,’ Professor Holness said.

My own research career was begun when I went to Graham asking if he knew of a suitable area to undertake a microstructural study of metamorphosed limestones – he thought for a very brief moment and then led me to a cabinet containing material from Skye which turned out to be the perfect example of what I was looking for.

Professor John Lonsdale recalls ‘a wonderful story-teller.’

Perhaps because he came to Trinity from afar, from Australia that ‘lucky country’ as he reminded us, he was unusually interested in the College’s history, full of tales told him by the oldest Fellows at the time, and full of kindly humour at his elderly informants’ eccentricities.

Much College gossip about times past has died with him. He himself, his humour, and his love for the College as a human community, will be much missed.

Dr Anil Seal recalls his own arrival as an undergraduate at Trinity in 1956, when Graham Chinner was already by then a research student and ‘the most powerful person in statu pupillari’.

“Why? Because Graham had found and become guardian of the key to a forgotten door into Trinity Street;  hence able to give the lovelorn, the night-runners, and the underworld among the inmates of Alcatraz (which all colleges then turned into at the stroke of midnight),  a get-out-of-jail and a return-to-prison-card: which Graham  dispensed with characteristic humour and generosity worthy of Solomon on a moderately good day.

And he had many very good days. He was an acutely perceptive observer of the foibles and follies of a College he loved – at once critic and defender of our peculiar institution as only outsiders (as most Fellows are) can come to be. He will be sorely missed: as a friend, and a unique enlivener of our rich and strange society.

Professor Boyd Hilton said ‘It was a privilege to be a tutor at the same time as him.’

Whenever he disagreed with a collective decision he would say nothing but just sit grinning sadly with his head slightly bowed.  This was a signal for the rest of us to ask what was the matter, and then would follow a devastating critique delivered in his usual hesitant, modest, and face-down manner.  It was a custom in those days for a retiring tutor to be awarded a private supply dinner.  Instead, when it came to my retirement, Graham stealthily arranged for a private coach with driver to take us all on a splendid four-hour pub crawl through various parts of Cambridge and Suffolk.  Later he served as a reluctant but mightily reliable senior tutor.

‘Most of all he was an outstanding Dean over a long period, a tenacious detective in the pursuit of wrong-doing and truth but a largely tender administrator of justice.’ Professor Hilton added

His rock-climbing skills, referred to by Marian, gave him an advantage over most Deans in the matter of tracking night climbers, and the experience gave rise to many hair-raising stories told with relish. One thing that made him a great Dean as far as undergraduates were concerned, and a burdensome legacy for all his successors, was that he revived a much older tradition whereby the Dean led a cabaret performance after the Commemoration Feast.  That was the one occasion when the ‘Aussie’ in him, normally well under control, went  ‘troppo’.  ‘Clancy of the Overflow’, whose meaning I never did quite fathom, ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’, and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ rang out through the early hours.  A quiet man but totally uninhibited on stage, and overall a lovable bloke.

Dr Chinner is survived by his wife, Jennifer Chinner.

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