Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Matthews, Drummond Hoylefree

  • F. J. Vine

Drummond Hoyle Matthews (1931–1997)

by Godfrey Argent Studios

Godfrey Argent Studios

Matthews, Drummond Hoyle (1931–1997), geologist and marine geophysicist, was born on 5 February 1931 at 29 Devonshire Street, St Marylebone, London, the only child of Charles Bertram Matthews (1897–1942), solicitor, and his wife, Enid Mary Hoyle (1899–1966). Throughout his life he was universally known as Drum. His father, who was a captain in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, had been badly wounded and traumatized during heavy aerial combat in March 1918. As a result, after the war, he moved to Porlock, Somerset, to help run a family horse-riding school. Matthews's love of the outdoors, and of the sea, sailing, and ships in particular, undoubtedly derived from his childhood experiences at Porlock. For much of the Second World War he attended the Downs preparatory school in Malvern, transferring in 1944 to Bryanston School in Dorset. At both schools he attained the position of head boy, admired by staff and peers alike for his reliability and integrity, and his thoughtfulness for others. At Bryanston he was instrumental in reviving interest in the sea cadets, and on leaving in 1949 undertook his national service within the Royal Navy. This provided him with additional training in seamanship and leadership which was to prove valuable in his subsequent career. At the end of his national service he was a sub-lieutenant on HMS Gravelines, and he remained a member of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve until 1967, when he was awarded the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve officers' decoration.

From 1951 to 1955 Matthews studied natural sciences at King's College, Cambridge. In 1954 he obtained a first in part one and was awarded an exhibition by the college. In part two he specialized in geology and petrology and he and others hoped that he would go on to study for a PhD. However, following a disappointing result in his final examinations, he took a job as a geologist with the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (later to become the British Antarctic Survey). During the next two years he spent three arduous field seasons in the South Orkney Islands, producing a geological map of Coronation Island and helping to map part of Signy Island. In late 1957, following his return to the UK, he was diagnosed as having diabetes, which meant that he was unable to carry out further field work in the Antarctic. He returned to Cambridge in January 1958 to embark on a PhD under Maurice Hill, his mentor as an undergraduate in King's College and head of the marine geophysics group of the department of geodesy and geophysics. As the first geologist to be recruited by this group, he was assigned the task of studying rocks dredged from the north-east Atlantic Ocean. In 1960 he was awarded a fellowship at King's College and became a senior assistant in research at the department of geodesy and geophysics, positions he held until 1966. He gained his PhD in 1961 and was then appointed to organize the initial British contribution to the International Indian Ocean Expedition.

In late 1962, aboard HMS Owen, Matthews set himself the unusual and then difficult task of surveying in detail a relatively small area (50 × 40 nautical miles) on the crest of the Carlsberg Ridge in the north-west Indian Ocean. It was the data from this survey that led to his best-known work. Together with his first graduate student, Fred Vine, he suggested that the linear anomalies in the earth's magnetic field over oceanic areas might be due to a combination of sea-floor spreading from the crests of the mid-ocean ridges, such as the Carlsberg Ridge, and reversals of the earth's magnetic field. Although initially regarded as too speculative a hypothesis, within a few years it was convincingly confirmed following the acquisition of additional data. This led to widespread acceptance of the validity of sea-floor spreading and continental drift, and paved the way for the formulation of the plate tectonic paradigm. This provides a unified explanation for the major topographic features at the solid earth's surface such as major faults, mountain ranges, mid-ocean ridges, and oceanic trenches.

On 1 May 1963 Matthews married (Elizabeth) Rachel McMullen (b. 1939), social worker, daughter of Launcelot McMullen, brewer. They had one son and one daughter. Following the untimely death of Maurice Hill in 1966, Matthews was promoted to be assistant director of research and appointed head of the marine geophysics group. Under his leadership during the following sixteen years the group, typically fifteen to twenty strong at any one time, took part in seventy-two cruises and expeditions and published nearly 200 papers. These included studies of plate boundaries such as the Azores–Gibraltar ‘ridge’, the Gulf of Oman, and the Hellenic arc, and the development of new seismic refraction techniques that revealed thinning of the continental crust beneath the North Sea basin. The latter provided compelling evidence for a radical model for the development of such sedimentary basins proposed at that time (1978) by Dan McKenzie.

By the late 1970s the period of remarkable discoveries relating to the evolution and structure of the deep-sea floor was coming to an end and Matthews sensed the need to change tack. In 1979 he spent a sabbatical at Cornell University, with Jack Oliver, to learn about the US land-based deep-crustal seismics programme, for by then knowledge of the structure of the deep continental crust was lagging way behind that for oceanic areas. On returning to the UK, and together with Derek Blundell, he was successful in obtaining funds to set up the British Institutions Reflection Profiling Syndicate (BIRPS), and in 1982 he became its first scientific director. In 1971 he had been appointed to the permanent position of reader in marine geology in the department of geodesy and geophysics. However he chose to resign from this post, and to be reappointed to a three-year contract, so that the marine geophysics group could continue separately under new leadership.

In using marine seismic techniques to study continental crust covered by shallow seas, notably around the British Isles, BIRPS obtained much better data than comparable programmes that were, unavoidably, restricted to land areas. It revealed previously unknown structures in the lower crust and upper mantle to a depth of 50 km. Appropriately one of the most significant profiles was the DRUM (Deep Reflections from the Upper Mantle) profile north of Scotland. In the light of its outstanding success, funding for the BIRPS project was repeatedly renewed; but in 1990, in failing health, Matthews took early retirement. His long struggle with diabetes had led to a deteriorating heart condition and in 1989 he suffered a heart attack. From 1980 to 1990 he was a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge. He enjoyed a very happy retirement, initially in Porlock and then in Wells, Somerset, with his second wife, Sandra (Sandie) Adam (b. 1949/50), author, daughter of Frank Trevor Howard Whiting, builder. They had married on 17 June 1987, Matthews's first marriage having ended in divorce in 1980.

Matthews was an unassuming, often self-deprecating person with an unusual, often whimsical, sense of humour. His legacy was a greatly improved understanding of the evolution of the earth's surface and numerous students who themselves became established and respected scientists. His outstanding contributions to geology and geophysics were recognized by election to fellowship of the Royal Society in 1974 and by numerous honours and prizes, including the Balzan prize in 1982 and the Wollaston medal of the Geological Society in 1989. He died of a heart attack, at Taunton Hospital, Somerset, on 20 July 1997, and was buried in Porlock church on 29 July. He was survived by both wives, and by the two children of his first marriage.


  • R. S. White, Memoirs FRS, 45 (1999), 275–94
  • curriculum vitae, U. Cam., Matthews MSS
  • R. White and others, Old Bryanston Yearbook, 62 (1998), 77–86
  • R. S. White, ‘Drummond Hoyle Matthews’, Nature, 388 (1997), 524
  • The Independent (1 Aug 1997)
  • The Independent (14 Aug 1997)
  • The Times (12 Aug 1997)
  • The Guardian (14 Aug 1997)
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • private information (2004)


  • U. Cam., department of earth sciences


  • Godfrey Argent Studios, photograph, 1974, RS; repro. in The Independent (1 Aug 1997)
  • Godfrey Argent Studios, photograph, Godfrey Argent Studios [see illus.]
  • photograph (after his retirement), U. Cam., department of earth sciences
  • two photographs, repro. in White, Memoirs FRS

Wealth at Death

£271,875: probate, 19 Dec 1997, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society