Lester Charles King (1907-1989) and South African Geomorphology

by Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

From its inception, the Royal Society of South Africa has been favoured with an unusually rich variety of creative and talented scientists among its Fellows – people who were innovative theorists and thinkers and whose influence extended far beyond South Africa. As acknowledged in a recent book review by Professor Graeme Wynn, an historical geographer at the University of British Columbia, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, South Africa holds an important place in the development of geomorphology as a distinct field of inquiry focused on understanding the Earth’s physical landscapes and how these came to into existence. Among our country’s eminent early geomorphologists (and one of the most influential of

Lester Charles King 1907-1989

Lester Charles King 1907-1989

the 20th century) was Lester Charles King whose contribution has been enormous. Perhaps unusually, he was attracted by topics both immense – continental drift, the morphology of the earth – and small – the Natal monocline, the Cango and Makapan Caves. Moreover, by all accounts, he was an excellent and interesting lecturer who stimulated students to enter the field, and he was certainly a fluent and productive writer who produced a wealth of publications many of which were translated.

King’s personal biography stood him in good stead as a geomorphologist because he travelled widely and observed keenly in southern Africa, Antarctica (he was part of the South African Antarctic Research Committee), South America and elsewhere. He was born in London and immigrated to New Zealand where he trained as a teacher and, inspired by Sir Charles Cotton – the notable New Zealand international authority on geomorphology – he then obtained his B.Sc. (1928) and M.Sc. (1930) from the University of New Zealand (he attended Victoria University College in Wellington). He lectured in geology for four years in New Zealand before immigrating to South Africa to take up a lecturing post in the Department of Geology at Natal University College (N.U.C.) in Pietermaritzburg. In 1936 he was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of South Africa (N.U.C. not being a full university at that time) and the University of New Zealand bestowed on him a D.Sc. in 1939 on account of the high quality of his research and his many publications. King became Professor of Geology at N.U.C. in 1946, founding the Department of Geology and Minerology in Durban in 1948. He remained in Durban as the College became a full university in 1949 and retired in 1973, holding the position of Emeritus Professor until his death.

Just as he had been influenced by Cotton, in his turn King inspired many geologists and geomorphologists who were his students and colleagues, including his own daughter Linley King with whom he collaborated. His field knowledge was broad and, as well as his core disciplines, included crystallography, palaeontology, archaeology, the history of science and scientific method. King was President of both the South African Geographical Society (1943) and the Geological Society of South Africa (1946). Many international honours and awards came his way in the course of his long and illustrious career, even the Patrons Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1965 for ‘geomorphological explorations in the Southern Hemisphere’.

In his review of Southern African Geomorphology: Recent Trends and New Directions, edited by Peter Holmes and Michael Meadows, Wynn described succinctly how geomorphology gained autonomy as geology began to investigate stratigraphy and palaeontology while physical geography (later physiography or geomorphology) emerged as the study of landforms. American geologist William Morris Davis, an early synthesiser, introduced the compelling notion of the ‘Geographical Cycle’ (1899) that foretold a standard sequence of landscape change. Over time, Davis argued, there was a cycle that began with land uplift and was then followed by its transformation over millennia. Through erosion, mountains were flattened into hills and valleys and broadening plains.

Erosion of Drakensberg from 'South African Scenery: A Textbook of Geomorphology' (1942, 1951)

Erosion of Drakensberg from ‘South African Scenery: A Textbook of Geomorphology’ (1942, 1951)

Landscapes, like humans, thus passed through a chronology of youth, maturity and old age. This powerful conceptual model of eventual landscape decay was taught in basic form until the 1960s. However, in the earlier part of the 20th century, some thinking geomorphologists, most importantly among them Lester King, considered this formula afresh and King produced a sustained counter-argument in his South African Scenery: A Textbook of Geomorphology (1942, 1951). This book taught my husband and me a great deal on our travels around South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s as it contained much information about weathering, erosion, glaciation and the other immense forces of nature, but also included concrete examples and many illustrations from South and southern Africa that made the landscape around us come alive. It remains one of our favourite books. King codified his thinking in a long article titled ‘Canons of landscape evolution’ that appeared in the Geological Society of America Bulletin in 1953.

A decade later, in his magnum opus, Morphology of the Earth (1962), King took closer issue with Davis, referring to his immutable cycle of transformation as a ‘negative and obliterating conception resulting from cerebral analysis rather than from observation’, that had produced ‘sterility in geomorphic thought and retarded progress in the subject severely’. Influenced by observations of the South African landscape – as suggested by Australian geomorphologist C R Twidale (1992) – King insisted that slopes and scarp-faces retreated parallel to themselves (known as parallel scarp retreat, introduced in Chapter V of South African Scenery). Thus, according to King, Davis’s postulation of a continuous lowering of slopes only happened in certain cases and was not the normal model. As Wynn states, ‘These were strong words, positing a very different understanding of slope retreat and landscape formation, and King’s ideas had a large influence on the development of geomorphology in the southern hemisphere’ although perhaps less so in the northern. Some of his ideas sparked fierce debate and his pediplanation hypothesis has fallen out of favour together with all geomorphic cycles.

Hillside slope from 'South African Scenery'

Hillside slope from ‘South African Scenery’

As a geomorphologist, King lived during an exciting time in South Africa. He knew Alexander Logie du Toit (1878-1948), probably South Africa’s most renowned geologist, Fellow of the Royal Society of London as well as Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, and a scientist who deserves a biographical essay of his own on this webpage. King’s imagination, like that of others, was captured by the emerging ideas around continental drift and plate tectonics that had first been given currency by Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) and that had been taken further by Du Toit who proved it geologically. King lectured on continental drift at a number of universities in the USA during a tour in 1958 and he also advocated the theory of an expanding earth, an idea then still radical. Unlike Du Toit, who died in 1948, King was able to capitalise on the later upsurge of respectability of, and accumulating data about, both plate tectonics and expansion in the 1960s and 1970s and his book with its explanatory title Wandering Continents and Spreading Sea Floors on an Expanding Earth (1983) was extremely successful.

King was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa in 1950 and supported the Society by publishing some of his work in the Transactions, including ‘The geology of the Makapan and other caves’ (33 (1), 1951) and ‘The geology of the Cango Caves, Oudtshoorn, C.P.’(33 (4), 1951). He clearly enjoyed working on the landscapes of the province of Natal (as it then was) and published journal articles on Zululand and its coast, coastal Natal and on Durban, as well as his book, The Natal Monocline: Explaining the Origin and Scenery of Natal, South Africa (1972, 1982).

Considered to be intellectually brilliant by many of his colleagues and also a fearless rebel, Lester King made a great mark on the understanding of the geomorphology of the planet generally and of our continent and country in particular. Although he may have become authoritative in his older age (as many do) he never hesitated to revise his theories in the light of later information and to make a scholarly contribution wherever he could.

Some sources:
Holmes, P. and Meadows, M., eds, Southern African Geomorphology: Recent Trends and New Directions. Bloemfontein: SUN PReSS, 2012.
King, Lester C. and King, Linley, A., ‘A reappraisal of the Natal Monocline’, South African Geographical Journal 41(1), 1959, pp.15-30.
King, L.C., South African Scenery: A Textbook of Geomorphology. Edinburgh & London: Oliver and Boyd, 1951. (First edition 1942.)
King, L.C., ‘Canons of landscape evolution’, Geological Society of America Bulletin 64 (7) 1953, pp.721-752.
King, L.C., ‘A geomorfologia do Brasil oriental’, Revista Brasilieira de Geografia 18, 1956, pp.146-265.
King, L., The Natal Monocline: Explaining the Origin and Scenery of Natal, South Africa. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press, 1982. (First edition 1972.)
King, L.C., Wandering Continents and Spreading Sea Floors on an Expanding Earth. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1983.
Maud, R.R., ‘Obituary: Lester Charles King. FRSSAf (1907-1989)’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa 47(2), 1989, pp.209-210.
Twidale, C.R., ‘King of the plains: Lester King’s contributions to geomorphology’, Geomorphology 5 (6) 1992, pp.491-509.
Twidale, C.R., ‘“Canons” revisited and reviewed: Lester King’s views of landscape evolution considered 50 years later’, Geological Society of America Bulletin 115 (10) 2003, pp.1155-1172.
Wynn, G., ‘Review of Southern African Geomorphology: Recent Trends and New Directions, edited by Peter Holmes and Michael Meadows (Bloemfontein: SUN PReSS, 2012)’, in Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 70 (1) 2015, pp.95-96.