DSc Geneva FRSNZ FGS
Arnold Lillie was born on the 20 March 1909, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the third of four sons in a Scottish-Argentinian family. His father, William, was a Scotsman who had immigrated to Argentina as a young man and established a business importing and selling engineering equipment. His mother, Isabel, a hospital matron before she married, came from a well-known family in the Argentinian-Scottish community. The Lillie family spent 5 years in Scotland when Arnold was 4 and left Argentina permanently to return to Glasgow when Arnold was 14. While Arnold and his brothers regarded the shift to Scotland as a grand opportunity to play more football, they also missed the relaxed way of life and the extended family that they left behind. Arnold always recalled how difficult the move was for his mother, who missed the warm climate and vibrant social life of Buenos Aires. Both Arnold’s parents died within 10 years of their move to Scotland, his mother when Arnold was 19 and his father when he was 23.
Arnold was not very happy in his Scottish schools. He attended Hutcheson’s Grammar School in Glasgow but left at 16 to work for a mining engineer. The several years which he spent surveying underground coal mines were to provide him with good experience that he would call on later in his career. His spare time was spent in the outdoors, hiking and climbing, and it was on excursions to the Scottish Highlands with the Scottish Mountaineering Club that he was introduced to, and fell in love with, mountains. Mountains and climbing were to have a major influence on his career choices and life.
Arnold grew up bilingual in Spanish and English, and at ease in a multicultural environment. He loved art and literature and was a voracious reader throughout his life. Most of his climbing friends were university students, and enjoyed a lifestyle that appeared to provide plenty of spare time for climbing, so it was not surprising that Arnold ultimately decided to go to university. He took coaching and then sat and passed the exams needed for him to gain entrance to Cambridge University. Seeking a career which allowed good opportunities for being in the mountains, Arnold chose to study geology there. At the time, Cambridge had an exceptionally strong Geology Department, and Arnold studied under such well-known geologists as Gertrude Elles, Alfred Harker, O T Jones and Cecil Tilley. Arnold did not speak often of his Cambridge period but it was very important to him, providing him with the opportunity to expand his intellectual horizons and determining many of his professional and social attitudes, although he probably gave more time and attention to planning climbing trips than to his studies.
While he was at Cambridge, Arnold met Rhoda Frankenburg, the younger sister of one of his Cambridge climbing friends. The Frankenburgs were a prominent Manchester family of Jewish origins. Rhoda and Arnold were married in 1933 and almost immediately left England for Arnold to start doctoral studies at the University of Geneva under Leon Collet.
Arnold chose a thesis area in Haute-Savoie, on the French-Swiss border just south of Lake Geneva, in a rugged mountainous terrain between the Giffre and Arve Rivers. Swiss and French geologists were at the forefront of structural geology and unravelling the complex structures of the European Alps. Arnold, with his excellent eye for perspective and three dimensions, found the European style of structural geology suited his talents. He was a meticulous describer of geology and collector of field data and had the ability to analyse complex features in combination with stratigraphy and integrate them into a larger picture. Arnold’s published research papers in the period 1935-39, all written in French, elucidated the complex structure of the Haute-Savoie with descriptions of stacked nappes of sedimentary rocks intersliced with crystalline basement rocks.
On completion of his doctorate, Arnold obtained a position with Shell and moved to The Hague in Holland. But Arnold did not enjoy oil company work and the political situation in Europe was also deteriorating rapidly. When he was told that he was being sent to Borneo and would have to leave Rhoda and their two small children behind, he decided to leave Shell and Holland. They moved back to Haute-Savoie and began looking for another position. It was Rhoda that noticed the New Zealand Geological Survey’s advertisement for a geologist. Arnold applied, was interviewed in London, and was offered the position. In April 1939, Arnold, Rhoda and two small children arrived in New Zealand.
Home for the Lillie family was initially Wellington. In his DSIR years, which were also the war years, Arnold worked entirely on projects assessing New Zealand’s energy resources. His first job in New Zealand was mapping in the Dannevirke area, and the resulting publication "Geology of the Dannevirke Subdivision", published in 1953, still stands as an important source of data for the key area of what we now know as a plate boundary accretion zone. Later, he worked extensively in the Ohai and Kaitangata coalfields, where his youthful experience surveying underground coal mines combined with his structural geology expertise was put to good use recording structures and thickness of the coal beds above and below ground. As Arnold moved from one mapping project to another, his family moved also, making a home in Otautau and then Dunedin, with Rhoda and the children, now numbering three, joining him in the field whenever possible. Although the Geological Survey projects resulted in many unpublished reports and maps which were incorporated into South Island Coalfield Bulletins, there was little that he could publish in his own right, and the survey years represent a hiatus in Arnold’s research output.
In 1946, Arnold left the DSIR to take a position as the first geologist at the Auckland Museum, but he resigned less than a year later to return to Wellington to become Senior Lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington. Arnold found he enjoyed teaching. He really cared about the welfare of students, and, with his very individual style of lecturing and emphasis on the basics of geological mapping and structure, he was a very effective teacher.
In 1951, he was appointed as Professor of Geology and Head of Department at the University of Auckland, a position that he held until his retirement in 1974. This period coincided with a time of rapid growth in the New Zealand university system, and Arnold oversaw the growth of the Geology Department from 2 to 25 staff and the introduction of modern instrument-based geological and geophysical methods. Arnold had a very strong influence on the direction of the department, insisting that its research and teaching remained firmly field based. As soon as he arrived in Auckland, he introduced courses on mapping at the graduate and undergraduate level and began taking students to field areas all over New Zealand. Some of the warmest memories that his students have of Arnold are of those field trips. To his students he was a benevolent figure; to his colleagues he was notable for being apolitical and never saying or doing anything that was malign. He was Dean of Science for a number of years and founded the Science Society, which was active at least into the early 1960s and which brought together staff and students within the Science Faculty.
When he became a university geologist Arnold was able to return to the mountains and again focus his attention on alpine geology. Arnold was an active member of the NZ Alpine club for many years and he really enjoyed sharing his love of the mountains with family friends and students. While geology classes remained small, he would take students down to the Southern Alps each summer and teach mountain as well as geological mapping skills. He pioneered structural work on the New Zealand Southern Alps. In a succession of papers over the 1950s to 60s, he recorded the major structural features of the Southern Alps. He recognised steeply plunging folds and was the first to interpret them as evidence of wrench faults and large-scale lateral movements. Largely as the result of this research, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1961.
In 1964, Arnold began fieldwork in New Caledonia. He revelled in the opportunity of working again in a French environment. New Caledonia also provided him with the opportunity of working in a complex geological environment and in mountains that were not as physically taxing as those in the Alps of his youth. It is paradoxical that, after bringing the European continental-style of geology to New Zealand, he took the New Zealand perspective to New Caledonia. With his wide field experience and ability to see the close comparisons between New Zealand and New Caledonian geology, he was able to show the European-trained French geologists that they should put aside their European experience and make correlations along the Pacific rim and particularly with New Zealand.
Throughout his whole career, Rhoda was Arnold’s greatest support and closest friend. Arnold was a devoted family man and remained close to his four children, and his grandchildren. The Lillie home in Tohunga Crescent, Parnell, was always open to friends, colleagues and students. After his retirement, Arnold remained in Auckland and continued to maintain a close interest in geology. Rhoda and Arnold’s home remained open, welcoming and a stimulating intellectual environment, attracting many visitors.
Arnold was fortunate in that he maintained his good health and intellectual abilities to the end of his life. He died suddenly on 11 February 1999, a month short of his 90th birthday. Arnold is survived by his wife Rhoda and their four children, Clare, Anna, Francis and Amanda.
– Philippa Black