The Papers of Professor William Alexander Deer

Scope and Content

The collection contains a number of slides [35mm and Lantern] and black and white photographs depicting work undertaken in East Greenland during the 1930s as well as expedition notebooks from 1935-1966. There is also correspondence relating to time spent in Canadian Territory in the 1940s; annotated field maps; and notes and analyses of work on Shiants and other specimens.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Alexander Deer was born 26 October 1910, the son of William Deer. William attended Manchester Central High School, Manchester University and St Johns College Cambridge in 1934, where he later became a fellow in 1938.

Deer was a petrologist on the British East Greenland Expedition, 1935-1936. The wintering party consisted of P. B. Chambers, W. A. Deer, Dr E. C. Fountaine, Dr and Mrs H. G. Wager, Mr and Mrs L. R. Wager and fourteen Eskimos. A three-roomed central house, including physiological laboratory and mess room, was built on the Skaergaard Peninsula, at the entrance to Kangerdlugssuak. One of the two small houses, put up by Captain Ejnar Mikkelsen in 1932, was also used by the English part of the expedition, while the other, some 400 yards away, was occupied by two Eskimo families.

In 1937, on completion of his PhD, Deer was appointed an assistant lecturer at the University of Manchester. In the following year the report of the expedition appeared and was judged by many to be the most significant contribution yet made to the science of igneous petrology.

On the outbreak of war, although in a reserved occupation, he joined the Chemical Warfare Section of the Royal Engineers, but soon transferred to the Operations Staff, in which he saw service in the Middle East, Burma and North Africa. He rose to the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

After the war Deer returned to St Johns College where he became Junior Bursar (1946) and a tutor (1949). He was appointed university demonstrator in mineralogy and petrology and elected Fellow and junior bursar at St Johns College in 1946, changing three years later to a tutorship. In 1950, however, election to the chair of geology took him back to Manchester, where he spent seven years bringing that department up to the best level in a period of rapid development on the subject.

In 1948 Deer was leader of the NE Coast Baffin Land Expedition with Mr C.W Brasher, also of St Johns College. One of the objects of the party was to determine whether the extensive development of tertiary igneous activity of the Kangerdlugssuaq region of East Greenland and the Disko area of West Greenland continued westward into Baffin Island. The reconnaissance was hampered by rough seas. They did reach Pond Inlet, where they carried out a detailed examination of an area which included igneous Gneisses that had not been found in other areas.

William Deer was joint leader of the British Greenland Geological Expedition in 1953. A party of seven geologists from Oxford and Manchester Universities who were studying tertiary igneous intrusions in the Kangerdlugssuaq area of East Greenland took part. These included L. R. Wager, Joint leader (Oxford) C. J. Hughes (Oxford) W. A. Deer, Joint leader (Manchester) G. D. Nicholls (Manchester) G. M. Brown (Oxford) D. S. Weedon (Oxford) and P. E. Brown (Manchester). Previous investigations had been made in the same area by Wager in 1930-31 and 1982, and by Wager and Deer in 1935-36.

In 1966 Deer was leader of the British Greenland Geological Expedition. Those taking part included W. A. Deer, Leader (Cambridge), G. A. Chinner (Cambridge), C. G. G. Born (Cambridge) R. Elsdon (Cambridge) P. D. Burnford (Cambridge) I. A. D. Sweetman (Cambridge) B. Atkins (Oxford) C. Kent-Brookes (Oxford) J. D. Bell (Oxford) D. G. Parrish (Oxford) J. D. Gunner (Oxford) P. E. Brown (Sheffield) C. D. Curtis (Sheffield) D. C. Dunn, Medical officer (Sheffield) D. Abbott, Research and Productivity Corporation (Sheffiled) and N. McKinnon, P. A. Stirling, T. J. Sweeney, drillers.

They carried out a programme of drilling and geological survey in the region of Kangerdlugssuaq, Kong Christian DCs Land, continuing and extending the work of the British East Greenland Geological Expedition, 1953. The work of this expedition was originally planned to extend over two seasons, the main effort to be during the summer of 1966 and a smaller drilling party the following summer.

In 1961 Deer was elected Professor of Mineralogy and Petrology at Cambridge, succeeding C. C. Tilley. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society the following year. He gave much time to the School of Physical Sciences and to university affairs more widely, serving on the General Board of the Faculties and chairing the major strategic committee, which set the future of scientific provision in west Cambridge, the report of which (1965) bears his name. This contributed decisively to the development of the present and future university, in west Cambridge, and, to come, northwest Cambridge.

He was Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, from 1966 to 1975, and presided over the college during a time of development. He served from 1971 to 1973, a period of student disturbance.

As Vice-Chancellor, Deer chaired the appointment of Dr Ian Nicol (who died on February 18) as secretary-general of the faculties, one of the three principal permanent administrative officers of the university (with whom he had collaborated in the school, and on west Cambridge). Deer fostered changes to the management structure which placed fuller responsibilities for academic management and long-term planning in the general boards, and Nicols, hands.

Deer was awarded the Bruce Medal, Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1948, and the Murchison Medal in 1974. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Aberdeen in 1983.

He was a trustee of the British Museum (Natural History) 1967-1975, President(s) of the Mineralogical Society 1967-1970, Geological Society 1970-1972 and a member of NERC, 1968-1971, and the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission, 1973-1979.

Deer married Margaret Marjorie Kidd in 1939 and they had two sons and one daughter. Margaret died in 1971. He later married Rita Tagg in 1973.


The boxes of records were in no particular order, although some clearly identified files do exist in some cases. The wooden cabinet included drawers of photographs and slides, which (mostly) related to the work in Greenland.

The collection has been provisionally (intellectually) arranged into 5 series to reflect the records and work undertaken by William Deer.

  • DEER 1 Personal
  • DEER 2 Greenland Expedition Notebooks, Diaries & Papers
  • DEER 3 Research and Papers
  • DEER 4 Photographs
  • DEER 5 Maps
  • DEER 6 Slides

The collection still needs to be (physically) arranged and catalogued.

Access Information

The papers are open for consultation by researchers using Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. However, as the papers have not been appraised, there may be some closures.

The Geological Conservation Unit [Brighton Building] is open from Monday to Friday, 10:00-13:00 and 14:00-17:00. A prior appointment made at least two weeks in advance, and two forms of identification are required.

Please contact the Museum to ask about the collection or to make an appointment.

Please contact the Archivist, Sandra Marsh to make an appointment or make an enquiry about the collection.

Other Finding Aids

The DDF Archive Inventory spreadsheet is available which contains basic box listing entries for the legacy records of the Sedgwick Museum and Department of Earth Sciences.

Please ask staff for further information.

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

The Lantern slides need assessment and copying to a more accessible format

Archivist's Note

This collection level description was created by Sandra Marsh of Sedgwick Museum in October 2010 information from William Deers entry in Who Was Who (A and C Black, 1997) obituary in the Sunday Times, March 2009, various articles detailing expeditions in East Greenland, and the papers themselves.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies, photographs, and printouts from scanned images may be provided. Charges may apply. Readers may also use their own digital cameras subject to copyright legislation and in-house rules.

Researchers wishing to publish excerpts from the papers must obtain prior permission from the copyright holders and should seek advice from Sedgwick Museum Staff.

Please cite as Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, The Papers of William Alexander Deer, DEER

Appraisal Information

The collection is still to be appraised.

Custodial History

4 boxes, a small wooden chest of 3 drawers, and 1 map cabinet drawer of records were identified as being those created or retained by William Alexander Deer. These were repackaged into 13 conservation grade boxes during the DDF project (2010-2011).

As no documentation could be recovered in Museum correspondence files to ascertain the provenance or acquisition details of the volumes, it is not clear when these records were originally physically transferred to the Museum.

The records had been transferred from the Sedgwick Museum [Downing Street, Cambridge] to the Geological Conservation Unit [Madingley Road] between 1991-2009.


No more records are currently expected.

Location of Originals

The Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) has records relating to the East Greenland Expedition, 1935-1936, Ref. MS 1420/1-5; ER Meteorological Records, 7 August 1935 to 18 August 1936, 4 volumes, 1 box of charts.

SPRI also have the papers of Augustine Courtauld which includes material relating to the 1935-36 expedition. Ref. MS 127;BJ Journal, 4 July to 8 September 1935, 1 volume, holograph; and MS 128;BJ Journal, 6 to 23 August 1935, 1 volume, holograph.

Geographical Names