Dr Peter Alan Burrough 1944-2009

Originally published in the June 2009 edition of The Auger Membership Magazine.

Dr Peter Alan Burrough   26 August 1944 - 9 January 2009

Many pedologists and geographers will now of Pete Burrough from his book Principles of Geographical Information Systems for Land Resource Assessment in which he described how to organize, analyse and present spatial data on soil and land.  The first edition was the outcome of his experience in soil survey, landscape classification and quantitative pedology.

Peter Burrough took his first degree in chemistry at the University of Sussex.  He won a scholarship to pursue research in organic chemistry at Oxford.  Once there, however, he discovered that soil was ore interesting, and he joined Philip Beckett’s small band of heretics who were questioning the orthodoxy of soil survey and seeking to place survey and classification on a proper quantitative basis.  He was awarded his doctorate for his contribution.

In the last year of his doctoral studies he was appointed junior lecturer in the university’s Geography Department.  There his interest in geography, a subject he had not studied at school, grew.  He successfully applied to join the British Overseas Development Administration and was appointed to serve as soil surveyor in Sabah, Malaysia.  In Sabah he maintained his interest in statistical pedology while doing ‘bread-and-butter’ survey for rural development.  He spent three years as lecturer in geography and soil science in the University of New South Wales.  It was barren time, with a heavy teaching load and no time for research.  So in 1976 he moved to the Netherlands, initially in the Soil Survey Institute in Wageningen and later in Wageningen University where he threw himself into Dutch li8de and culture.  There his research career took off.

He developed computer-based methods for landscape classification and display, leading to numerous publications on a variety of topics including fractals, geostatistics, error propagation and fuzzy classification.   In 1984 his prowess, achievement and enthusiasm were recognized by the University of Utrecht which appointed him as professor of physical geography and geographical information systems.

He finished his book in between these two jobs.  The book was an instant success in a time that GIS was rapidly developing and there were no authoritative texts yet.  Peter became a GIS celebrity and travelled the globe to give keynote addresses and to promote his work and that of his students.  Although his interests widened to encompass topics well outside of soil science, he continued to publish in journals of soil science and may be regarded as one of the founders of the pedometrics community.  The new methods from mathematics, statistics and computer science that he introduced to soil science have helped shape the way we do quantitative soil science today.  Our Society recognized his when it made him an honorary member in 2008.

Peter thrived in the dynamic environment at Utrecht University and loved teaching as much as research.  Unfortunately in 2005 the university’s shortage of money forced him into early retirement, but it gave him the opportunity to accept and honorary research professorship at Oxford University.  Sadly, illness soon took hold and prevented him from implementing his plans for research, and he returned to the Netherlands in October 2008.

Many will remember peter for his charismatic presentations and in influential publications, but what characterized Peter most was his unbounded enthusiasm and excitement for research.  While in charge of a large research group with many responsibilities, he would still find time to develop tools for spatial analysis for his students, to make new discoveries and to share these with whoever passed his room.  It is his passion for science that we shall remember most.

Richard Webster and Gerard Heuvelink