Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of John Sutton FRS (1919-1992), geologist

This record is held by Imperial College Archives and Corporate Records Unit

Details of Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of John Sutton FRS (1919-1992), geologist
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of John Sutton FRS (1919-1992), geologist
Reference: NCUACS 75.4.98













The material is presented in the order shown in the list of contents. It covers the period 1910-1995.


Mrs Sutton left many comments identifying the papers appended to or inscribed on the papers. Reference to such comments is indicated in the catalogue in the form '(BS)'.


Section, A, Biographical, includes obituaries and reminiscences of Sutton. Sutton's childhood and schooldays are documented and there is a little material relating to his undergraduate studies. There are papers relating to his career including wartime service, and of some of the honours he was accorded. There is significant family material, particularly of his father Gerald John Sutton, an engineer and inventor. It includes a sequence of his patents 1928-1958. Financial material records Sutton's extensive work as an examiner for his own and other universities, as a referee for scientific journals and his work for the BBC as a broadcaster and adviser. There are also photographs of Sutton, some with Janet Watson, and material relating to Sutton's family background.


Section B, Notebooks, covers the period 1940-1992. The notebooks used up to the late 1960s are chiefly geological field notebooks and a number include notes by Janet Watson. The notes therein include observations, sketches and plans and lists of specimens. These include a set of notebooks recording work in Greenland 1965-1969. From the late 1960s on the content is increasingly diverse and alongside geological observations may include notes on proceedings of conferences and sketches of scenery, plants and people as well as of geological phenomena, many from visits overseas for conferences and meetings.


Section C, Notes and drafts, chiefly comprises notes for and drafts of publications or work intended for publication dating from the late 1930s to very shortly before Sutton's death. Some of the material bears Janet Watson's handwriting, attesting to the collaborative nature of much of their work. There are also drafts by others and a little printed material.


Section D, Visits and conferences, is slight but supplements to some extent the material in the later notebooks in section B including documentation of a number of Sutton's visits to China. It covers the period 1957, 1970-1992.


Section E, Correspondence, is principally two sequences of letters 1948-1960 and 1961-1992, assembled by Mrs Sutton and arranged in chronological order. In addition to scientific and personal correspondence there are papers for conferences and from societies and organisations. Principal correspondents are E.B. Bailey, M.J. Fleuty, A. Holmes, J.L. Knill, J.G. Ramsay and H.H. Read. There is also additional correspondence 1939-1989 and contents of an envelope of postcards. The correspondence is almost entirely incoming.


Section F, Non-textual material, includes hand-drawn maps of the Loch Torridon area of Scotland, a sequence of aerial photographs of the Greenland coast. There are also two cine films and a sound tape of his Bennett Lecture to the Geologists Association.

Date: 1910-1995
Held by: Imperial College Archives and Corporate Records Unit, not available at The National Archives
Language: English
Extent: 13 boxes, ca 390 items
Administrative History:

John Sutton was born in Bedford Park, West London on 8 July 1919. He was educated at Gunnersbury Preparatory School, Chiswick, London and King's School, Worcester before entering Imperial College London in 1937 to study geology. He graduated in 1941. During the Second World War Sutton initially served in East Anglia with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps but was later transferred to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He was posted to the Orkneys where he was involved in the improvement of radar.


After the war Sutton returned to Imperial College to take up postgraduate research for his Ph.D. under the supervision of H.H. Read. He was to remain at Imperial for the rest of his career. At Read's suggestion Sutton joined other research students studying the Lewisian Gneiss of north-west Scotland. During this fieldwork he met Janet Vida Watson, the daughter of the palaeontologist D.M.S. Watson and a fellow geology research student at Imperial College. They worked in conjunction on the Lewisian Gneiss and thereafter on other geological problems, co-authoring a number of important papers. In 1949 Sutton and Watson were married. Sutton was appointed to a lecturership in 1948, a Readership in 1956 and in 1958 to a Chair in Geology. In 1964 he became Head of Department, a post he was to hold for ten years. Sutton took over the Department at a time of considerable expansion and was responsible for its international reputation whilst it became one of the largest in Europe. Sutton served as Dean of the Royal School of Mines (part of Imperial College) 1965-1968 and 1974-1977 and Pro-Rector of Imperial College from 1979 to retirement in 1983. Amongst other developments in the Geology Department for which Sutton was largely responsible were the establishment of the Centre for Environmental Technology (Sutton was its first Chairman and a Senior Research Fellow) and the Centre for Remote Sensing, a scientific development in which he took a keen interest.


Sutton was President of the Geologists' Association 1966-1968 and also served as a Trustee of the British Museum (Natural History) 1976-1981 and as a member of the Natural Environment Research Council 1977-1979.


Sutton's principal contribution to geology was his work on the Lewisian Gneiss. He and Janet Watson collaborated closely in this work and their findings were published jointly. The Precambrian Lewisian rocks contain no fossils and exhibit few sedimentary sequences. It is therefore extremely difficult to establish the relationships by which rocks can be dated. Sutton and Watson demonstrated that it is necessary to use metamorphic events rather than stratigraphic sequences to establish relationships and identified a number of basic dykes, an older metamorphic episode predating the dykes (the Scourian) and a more recent geological episode (the Laxfordian) later than the dykes. This was controversial at the time but the discovery was to represent a new technique for understanding Precambrian geology.


In recognition of his contributions to geology the Geological Society of London awarded Sutton the Moiety of the Lyell Fund in 1954 (jointly with Janet Watson), the Bigsby Medal in 1965 (with Watson) and the Murchison Medal in 1975. Sutton was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1966 (Vice-President 1975-1977). He died on 6 September 1992, being survived by his second wife Betty (née Middleton-Sandford) whom he married after the death of Janet Watson in April 1985.

Creator Names:
  • Sutton, John, 1919-1992, scientist and geologist
Immediate Source Of Acquisition:
  • The bulk of the papers were received in October 1996 from Mrs Betty Sutton, the second wife and widow of Professor John Sutton FRS. A little further biographical material was made available by Mrs Sutton in July 1998 and this has been indicated in the catalogue.

Conditions of access:







Compiled by Timothy E. Powell and Peter Harper


The work of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and organisations


The Biochemical Society


The Geological Society


The Higher Education Funding Council for England


The Institute of Physics


The Royal Society


The Wellcome Trust


We are grateful to Mrs Sutton for assembling the papers and making them available for cataloguing and for her helpful comments and identifications of material.

Related Material:
  • Given the collaborative nature of much of Sutton and Janet Watson's work, users of the present catalogue may also wish to refer to the Catalogue of the Papers and Correspondence of Janet Vida Watson (NCUACS no. 48/4/94, Bath, 1994), deposited in the Library of the Geological Society of London.

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