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Aberdeen scientist who found clue to life on Mars, Dr Jeff Wilson, dies aged 86

He discovered a stone at Bennachie which Nasa then examined.

Dr Jeff Wilson, at the Macaulay Institute in 1997. Picture by DC Thomson.
Dr Jeff Wilson, at the Macaulay Institute in 1997. Picture by DC Thomson.

Aberdeen scientist and university lecturer, Dr Jeff Wilson, who discovered a rock Nasa used to research life on Mars, has died aged 86.

The Macaulay Institute expert, who contributed to more than 300 scientific papers was a world expert on geology and soil composition.

Raised in the Valleys

Michael Jeffrey Wilson, known as Jeff, was born on February 22 1937 in Liverpool. One of five children, he was the son of electrician and part-time magician Herbert Wilson, and wool shop owner, Winifred.

In 1939 they moved to Merthyr Tydfil where Jeff attended Dowlais Catholic Primary School then Merthyr County Grammar.

Jeff Wilson, who was raised in the Welsh valleys.

Swansea University followed where Jeff excelled in geology. After graduating in 1958 he attained a further BSC then a PhD all the while working in Cardiff University as a demonstrator in the geology lab.

Aberdeen or Australia

When it came time to apply for jobs, Jeff found himself at a crossroads.
He applied for two roles: one in Australia as a geologist, another with the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute (MLURI) in Aberdeen.

Jeff Wilson as a student, before his academic career.

Offered both positions he opted for the Australian post pending a medical examination.  When it was revealed he had contracted TB as a teenager without knowing, his plans changed. Instead he moved to Aberdeen.

He took a room at the Malacca Guesthouse and there met fellow Welshman and scientist, Dr David Jones, who also worked at the Macaulay Institute.

Family man

During a trip home for Christmas in 1964, Jeff reconnected with Ann Sullivan, who he’d gone to school with. A history teacher, Ann arranged to meet up with Jeff a few months later. By the following Easter they were engaged.

Ann moved from Merthyr to Aberdeen and the couple tied the knot in November 1964. Their first flat was in Elmbank Road, however, in May 1966 they bought their first house in Peterculter.

Dr Jeff Wilson and daughter Elizabeth Hebden.

Daughter Jennie was born in April 1967. Two years later they moved to Glenhome Court, Dyce, and in 1970 their second daughter Elizabeth arrived.

Jeff continued to make his mark in mineralogy, travelling the world and earning himself a promotion to head of the soils microbiology division at the Macaulay.

In his spare time he taught himself piano and played cricket.

On returning from his many travels Jeff loved to regale his daughters with stories of his travels to China, Australia, Europe, Asia, Africa and America where he lectured and collaborated on research.

Academic achievements

Over the years Jeff penned hundreds of scientific papers, and published five books.

He was the first recipient of the Schlumberger medal for excellence in mineralogical research and was an honorary professor at Zhejiang University, China, for his contribution to red soil research.

Dr Jeff Wilson with one of the books he authored, edited and published, outside the Macaulay Institute.

As an honorary fellow of the Macaulay, which later became part of the James Hutton Institute, his credentials and achievements were vast.

In addition, Jeff taught for more than a decade at BSc and MSc levels at Aberdeen University. He loved to learn and pass on his knowledge. He was also a lecturer at Naples University, for overseas student summer schools and within the oil industry.

Clues to life on Mars

Jeff’s greatest scientific achievement, however, was the discovery of Macaulayite during a field trip at the foot of Bennachie.

He identified that unusually coloured rocks from the Aberdeenshire site were formed from granite weathered by tropical climates prior to the last ice age.

It remains the only known source of this type of rock in the world but despite discovering it, the name Wilsonite was taken so Jeff went for Macaulayite instead.

Nasa then contacted Jeff in 2009 as part of their study on Martian minerals to try to prove that life on the red planet would be sustainable. It then made national news that:   Nasa tests Aberdeenshire find for life on Mars clues.

Devoted grandfather

In 1999 Jeff and Ann separated but the following year collectively celebrated the arrival of first grandson, James. Their second grandchild, Alice, was born in 2007. Jeff was more than happy to be on hand when needed.

James and Alice were beloved by their doting grandfather.

Jeff and Lyudmyla at Christmas with their family.  Anticlockwise, on Jeff’s left is daughter Jennie, granddaughter Alice, son-in-law Mark, grandson James, his girlfriend Jenny, Masha and her husband Nick.

Jeff remarried fellow scientist, Ukrainian Lyudmyla Pavlova. Colleagues at the Macaulay, they first met at a clay conference in Belgium and their close working relationship eventually turned into something stronger.

They lived in Dyce then Bridge of Don along with Lyudmyla’s daughter, Masha, who Jeff raised as his own.

Endlessly caring

Jeff’s capacity to care was as expansive as his expert knowledge.

Masha recalled Jeff’s efforts to make her feel at home in Scotland. Knowing she would be homesick whenever she returned from visiting Ukraine he bought her a Harry Potter book and placed it on her bed. He continued this, with each new novel, whenever she came home from a trip.

Jennie Craig and her dad Dr Jeff Wilson.

All three daughters paid tribute to the endless driving he did, without complaint, taking them to university or job interviews, and picking up their friends after nights out in Aberdeen. They also remarked on his desire to study courses they were taking so he could discuss it with them.

Jeff was also exceptionally close to his brother Martin. On his guidance Martin went into a career in biology and loved his brother’s forensic mind and memory – especially when it came to naming composers.

Jeff with his Ukrainian family, Masha, Valeriia, Mykhailo, Martin and wife Lyudmyla.

He embraced his sons-in-law and when Lyudmyla’s older daughter and grandsons fled Ukraine, Jeff happily welcomed them into his home.

Latter months

During their marriage Jeff and Lyudmyla enjoyed travelling, attending conferences and concerts and family days out.

He continued working for the Macaulay Institute as an honorary fellow into his 80s, until his health deteriorated.

When Jeff had to spend his remaining days in a care home Lyudmyla visited every day with world news updates.

During their travels, Jeff and Lyudmyla Wilson, in Seoul, South Korea.

Jeff died on July 21 after a long illness. His daughters Jennie and Elizabeth were with Lyudmyla, by his side.

In a family tribute it was written that Jeff’s contributions to the world of soil science and clay mineralogy are unsurpassable and he will be always be remembered, revered and referred to in this field.

However, they said, he would be most missed “as a husband, father, stepfather, brother, father-in-law and grandfather”.