Charles Strachan Hutchison became a highly respected, seminal figure in the study of Southeast Asia’s geology.
It’s no secret why:
Hutchison was the right person in the right place at the right time, studying the region as a new understanding of its geology developed.
He assisted his colleagues, mentored students and younger geologists and served as a driving force in his local geological society and other associations.
Most of all, Hutchison advanced the science. He published a number of important books, other monographs, studies and papers, all serving as foundations for further work and understanding.
In September, Charles Hutchison will be commemorated in two special oral sessions with a theme of Borneo-Sundaland at the AAPG International Conference and Exhibition in Singapore: the “Hutchison Memorial Session-Southeast Asia Regional Tectonics” and the “Hutchison Memorial Session-Tectonics of Borneo.”
Session co-chairs are AAPG members Christopher Morley of PTT Exploration and Production Public Co. in Bangkok, Thailand and Robert Hall of the Royal Holloway University of London in Surrey, England.
Hall is a professor in the university’s Department of Earth Sciences Southeast Asia Research Group. He remembered Hutchison, who died in October 2011, as someone who had “strong views about many things.”
“He was a great encourager of people to be interested in the region,” Hall said, “and he had been there a long time.”
His Scottish Influence
Born in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire in the United Kingdom in April 1933, Hutchison earned his degree with first-class honors in geology from the University of Aberdeen in 1955.
He worked in the petroleum industry in the West Indies for two years, then took an assistant lectureship in the new geology department at the University of Malaya in Singapore.
The Malay Peninsula would be his home base for the remainder of his life.
In 1960, Hutchison moved to Kuala Lumpur and played a key role in establishing the geology department at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
Peter Clift is a professor of petroleum geology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, La., and emeritus professor in the Department of Geology and Petroleum Geology at the University of Aberdeen. He recalled Hutchison returning to Scotland for a visit.
“I did once have the pleasure of hosting him in Aberdeen during one of his visits back to his mother country, and it was good to see him share his enthusiasm for the geology of Southeast Asia with a new generation of Scottish students,” Clift said.
“Although, it was also clear that Malaysia had now become his adopted home and the place he felt most at home and happy in,” he added.
Hutchison had a special interest in granites and mineralization in Southeast Asia, and “particularly the Gondwana fragments that were assembled there in the Mesozoic,” Hall said. He theorized the interest might have grown out of Hutchison’s Scottish background.
“He came from the University of Aberdeen, and Aberdeen is situated near the large granite deposits associated with the Caledonian orogeny,” he noted.
Hutchison became a full professor of applied geology at the University of Malaya in 1977 and served as head of the geology department from 1978-82. The 1970s and ‘80s brought the beginnings of his most notable work.
He co-edited with D.J. Gobbett “Geology of the Malay Peninsula” (1973) and authored “Laboratory Handbook of Petrographic Techniques” (1974), “Economic Deposits and Their Tectonic Setting” (1983) and “Geological Evolution of Southeast Asia” (first edition 1989).
Plate tectonics gave Hutchison and other geologists new insight into the region’s geology, according to Hall. Southeast Asia had been simply and commonly – and incorrectly – seen as geologically quiescent, Hall said, despite ample evidence of tectonic movement.
“Up until plate tectonics came along, it’s my impression that people saw these strange phenomena and didn’t really know what it all meant,” he said. “Then along came plate tectonics and it all began to make sense.”
Hutchison was a founding member of the Geological Society of Malaysia in the 1960s, serving as its president in1969-70. The society awarded him honorary membership in 1986 for distinguished service to the geoscience community and for promoting interest in the geosciences in Malaysia.
“He was a very active person who helped keep the Geological Society of Malaysia running. You could always rely on him to ask a few questions and to have something to say,” Hall said. “He was one of those people you need.”
Generous to colleagues and eager to gain scientific advances, Hutchison is remembered as both a facilitator and proselytizer for Southeast Asia geological studies.
“He was truly a gentleman and scholar in the best tradition. He was very much eager to foster young talent in Malaysia and to facilitate links between University of Malaya and research institutes globally,” Clift said.
“Thanks to Charles, I was able to develop a network of friends in Malaysia through his multiple introductions, often over an excellent curry dinner near the university or at the university with tea and biscuits before a seminar,” he recalled.
A Pivotal Position
Hutchison was highly regarded not only for advancing fundamental geological understanding but also for his contributions to petroleum geology and economic mineralogy.
“He was an important connector between academia and industry because of his high standing in both communities,” Clift said.
“There were not many people who had seen as much geology in Southeast Asia as Charles, and I found him a hugely helpful colleague who was happy to share his experiences and advance the science,” he added.
In addition to his research and teaching at the University of Malaya, Hutchison taught courses on geology and tectonics as a visiting professor at the University of Brunei Darussalam and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
He was affiliated with the Earth Sciences and Resources Institute of the University of South Carolina, responsible for developing training programs throughout the wider Southeast Asian region.
He also served as co-coordinator for the Studies in East Asian Tectonics and Resources Transects of the Committee for Co-ordination of Joint Prospecting for Mineral Resources in Asian Offshore Areas from 1988-91.
Hutchison continued as professor of applied geology at the University of Malaya until 1992. His career as a scholar and researcher included more than a hundred papers published in refereed journals, and he kept publishing long after he retired from active teaching.
“It was especially good that he was able to publish a number of his scientific ideas after retirement, when he had more time to devote to writing and thinking,” Clift said.
The Write Stuff
AAPG awarded Hutchison a Special Commendation in 1994 in recognition of his outstanding contributions to geological research, regional synthesis, tectonic analysis and understanding of Southeast Asian hydrocarbon and mineral deposits.
“The things that Charles was best known for outside of Southeast Asia were probably his books,” Hall said.
He ranked Hutchison’s 1989 volume on the region’s geological evolution as one of the three essential works about Southeast Asian geology.
“Charles’s was the book that covered the interior of Southeast Asia and the older rocks up to Indochina. He published a lot on the Malay Peninsula, being based in Singapore and later KL,” Hall said.
In his later period, Hutchison’s published works included “South-East Asian Oil, Gas, Coal and Mineral Deposits” (1996) and “Geology of North-West Borneo: Sarawak, Brunei and Sabah” (2005).
The Borneo book is also considered a classic study.
“Charles was a pioneer in understanding the geology of Southeast Asia and was one of the first people to try to properly integrate the on- and offshore geology, especially Borneo, where few Western geologists had ever worked, let alone published,” Clift noted.
“His book on the topic is an essential part of any library on the area,” he said.
Hutchison was an elected fellow of several professional societies, including AAPG, the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy of London, the Mineralogical Society of America and The Geological Society of London.
He was appointed professor emeritus in geology at the University of Malaya in August 2004, and continued as visiting senior research fellow from May 2009 until his death in October 2011.
Known for his generosity and his insight as a geologist, Hutchison also is remembered for his willingness to share credit and accept fault. He dedicated “Geological Evolution of Southeast Asia” to his fellow professors at the University of Malaya.
In the book’s preface, he wrote:
“I have always taught my students that every aspect of geology involves interpretation. From thin sections to hand specimens, to maps, and thence to regions there is an increasing order of interpretation.
“This book is, therefore, a personal interpretation of the region. Although it has greatly benefited from and has been influenced by numerous discussions with colleagues, the mistakes are mine alone.”