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Williams, Michael (1935–2009), geographer, was born at Rheanfa House Maternity Hospital, Swansea, on 24 June 1935, the second son and third child of Benjamin (Ben) Williams, commercial traveller, and his wife, Ethel Mary, née Marshell (b. 1899). At the time of his birth registration the family lived at 30 Beechwood Road, Swansea. He attended Emmanuel Grammar School and then Dinefwr Grammar School. In 1953 he entered University College, Swansea, part of the federal University of Wales, where he was influenced by the historical geographer Frank Emery. He graduated in 1956 with a first-class degree. On 25 June 1955 he had married Eleonore (otherwise Eleanore, or Loré) Lerch (b. 1933/4), a fellow student, later a schoolteacher, and daughter of Leopold Lorenz Lerch, boot- and shoemaker.

Between 1957 and 1960 Williams undertook doctoral research on the Somerset levels at Swansea, while holding a demonstratorship in geography at the university college. In 1960, having graduated PhD, he and Loré moved to Cambridge, where he entered St Catharine's College to study for a diploma in education. University lectureships were rare, but there was a vacancy at the University of Adelaide, so he and Loré moved there towards the end of the year. He stayed in Australia for seventeen years, being promoted senior lecturer (1966), and then reader (1970); the couple's two daughters, Catherine Dilys (b. 1962) and Tess Jane (b. 1965), were born there. Generous study leave enabled Williams to undertake research in the UK and the USA. In 1978 he moved to a lectureship at the University of Oxford, being promoted reader in 1990, and to a personal chair in 1996. He was elected a university fellow (from 1993 to 2002, the Sir Walter Raleigh fellow) and tutor in geography at Oriel College, serving as vice-provost in 2000–02. He was also a lecturer (college tutor) at St Anne's College from 1978. On retirement in 2002 he became professor emeritus and an emeritus fellow of Oriel.

At Adelaide and Oxford, Williams taught historical geography and rural settlement. He revised his doctoral thesis for publication as The Draining of the Somerset Levels (1970), a superb example of historical geography demonstrating how and why the wetland changed over the centuries, and hinting at wider environmental concerns. His Australian work examined how other landscapes were transformed following European settlement, giving rise to South Australia from the Air (ed., 1969), The Making of the South Australian Landscape (1976), The Changing Rural Landscape of South Australia (1977), and scholarly articles. By this time, the focus of his work was changing and for the next three decades he concentrated on the historical geography of woodland and deforestation. Americans and their Forests appeared in 1989 (and in an abridged edition in 2002), earning him the Weyerhaeuser prize of the American Forest and Conservation Society. In 1991 he was awarded the degree of DLitt from the University of Wales for published work. His Deforesting the Earth, from Prehistory to Global Crisis (2003, published in an abridged edition in 2006) was magisterial in scope, and earned him both the Meridian prize of the Association of American Geographers and (again) the Weyerhaeuser prize.

Over the years Williams placed more emphasis on environmental history and management, with two edited volumes exploring Wetlands: a Threatened Landscape (1991) and Planet Management (1993). He was lead editor of the unpublished methodological writings of Sir (Henry) Clifford Darby, which appeared as The Relations of History and Geography (2001). His last project was a monograph on the life and work of the cultural geographer Carl Sauer, using materials in the Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California. The manuscript was finished by the time of his death but further editing was needed.

Williams was editor of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (1983–8), co-editor of Progress in Human Geography (1991–2001) and Global Environmental Change (1993–7), and a member of other editorial boards. He chaired the Historical Geography Research Group of the Institute of British Geographers (1983–6), hosting a major conference at Oxford. He was the sixth geographer to be elected a fellow of the British Academy (1989), serving on its council (1993–6) and chairing the geography and social anthropology section (1994–7). Together with Ron Johnston he edited A Century of British Geography (2003) to mark the academy's centennial.

Michael Williams was a highly productive, gentlemanly scholar who disliked conflict and enjoyed the quietness of the archive or library. An encouraging tutor, he was not a particularly prominent lecturer at Oxford and did not head the school of geography. He was the founding director of the MSc degree in environmental change and management (1993–8), and mentored eight doctoral students to completion, albeit on topics independent of his own. In 1987 he had a melanoma removed but despite other medical conditions he pursued his research with vigour. His health deteriorated in 2009 and he died of adult respiratory distress syndrome on 26 October at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, the day he was due to deliver the twentieth Sauer memorial lecture at Berkeley. Following a private funeral at Oxford crematorium on 4 November 2009, his ashes were scattered on his favourite beach near Adelaide and on a hillside near his home at Harcourt Hill, Oxford. He was survived by his wife, Loré, and their daughters.

Hugh Clout


South Australian Geographical Journal, 108 (2009), 119–20 · GJ, 176 (2010), 111–14 · Journal of Historical Geography, 36 (2010), 466–72 · Geographical Research [Australian Geographical Studies], 48 (2010), 215–17 · Australian Geographer, 41 (2010), 425–7 · Geographers Biobibliographical Studies, 30 (2011), 46–67 · PBA, 172 (2011), 355–75 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.


obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

under £46,000: probate, 8 Feb 2010, CGPLA Eng. & Wales