Geologist and orchardist lived a life less ordinary
Obituary: Dr Harry McQuillan, PhD, FGS, the Nelson province apple orchardist, who has died at 89, was also an international oil geologist and university professor noted for his work in Iran.
He was also a spell-binding speaker who for many years led tours that unwrapped the deep history of ancient Persia.
A rugged Kiwi, as much at home in demanding terrain as in the lecture hall, his fitness was extraordinary as was his knowledge of the geology of Earth. His work ethic was renowned and until the last months of illness with cancer he was working long days on the family apple and pear orchard atop the Mapua cliffs.
His parents had met during World War I, when his father was a medic at Gallipoli and later the Somme. On September 12, 1918, Henry McQuillan, from Mataura in Southland, married Nellie Matilda Wood, a department store manager from Romford, today part of Greater London.
They travelled to New Zealand on the Remuera which arrived at Auckland on 5 May 1919 bringing home New Zealand troops, and 121 war brides.
Harry was born at Gore but his father later moved the family to Dunedin in the hope that his son would attend medical school.
He began a BSc at Otago University, initially studying pure maths and physics but geology won his heart after encountering the brilliant Professor Noel Odell.
Odell was an impressive man who famously had searched for the lost Everest climbers Mallory and Irvine, in an abortive expedition in 1924. Tough, resourceful and with specialist skills – a role model for the young McQuillan.
Odell was inspirational about his time with Anglo Persia Oil and Harry decided to work up the paper for his final exam on structural stratigraphic characteristics of Iran. An A pass was the start of a long career in petroleum exploration.
On his graduation, Shell invited him to fly to the UK, where he was fast tracked into doing a PhD at Nottingham University, then considered to be the best place for geological research. His doctoral thesis was on the geology of the Pembrokeshire coast, where summers were spent mapping the cliffs of Pembrokeshire, Wales, and staying in a caravan at Littlehaven. His doctoral thesis on the coastline’s geology (famed for ‘weathered cliffs, dazzling beaches and secret coves’) was a brilliant work, adding to Shell’s interest in him.
Shell despatched him to The Hague for training and then onto his first assignment as a field geologist. Not to Iran, but the jungle areas of Brunei and Sarawak, with two days in Singapore to buy tropical gear.
Re-assigned nine months later, in 1959, to Iran – which he thought a geologist’s paradise by comparison. His first project supervision of a three-drilling-rig programme on the Gachsaran oilfield. But he was attracted more by the peaks of the nearby High Zagros, with its lush valleys and nomadic tribes.
The Zagros forms a collision belt extending over about 2000km from Turkey to the Strait of Hormuz. This orogenic belt results from the closure of an ocean that once existed between the Arabia margin and the Eurasia continent. Geologically, it was alluring terrain.
He was soon mapping vast tracts of the Zagros Mountains, leading exploration parties on horseback with a team of 50 mules, six horses and Bakhtiari tribesmen labourers. Interesting locations he marked as possible drilling sites. One of the prospects proved to be ‘a monster’ oilfield, Bibi Hakimeh.
He became party leader for the terrain in SE Iran, near a small town called Bandar Abbas – today’s location for a giant oil terminal.
Harry began using stereographic mapping – using photos to identify prospects, then exploring them, staying in contact via ham radio. A DC 3 dropped in mail and food supplies every two weeks.
In a mountainous gorge during one of his field trip, he came across the carcass of a small lion. Iran has many animals: leopard, cheetah, bears, jackals, hyenas; but his discovery remains the last known sighting of the now extinct Persian lion. Identified by one of its teeth that he asked visiting English students to take to the British Museum for analysis.
In 1962, he met his future wife, Maureen, the Scottish nanny for the children of the Shah’ of Iran’s half-sister Fatemeh Pahlavi. Four months later, they were married at the British Embassy in Iran’s capital Tehran.
Their linkage with Iran grew with the birth of two daughters, Christine and Linda, in Tehran and son Jamie in Shiraz.
An opportunity arose to set up a geology department at the new Pahlavi University established by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the city of Shiraz.
Associate Professor McQuillan was held in high regard by his students and many remained in touch throughout their careers. The university was English-speaking and his years in the field had also equipped him with excellent Farsi. His clear, expressive, delivery of technical knowledge was enhanced by his typically good humour. Throughout his lifetime, most who heard a McQuillan dissertation were to be enriched by the experience.
After five years, the family returned to Tehran, where he became an adviser to the Iranian National Oil Company, the powerful oil producing arm of the state. In the years that they lived in-country, they tactfully negotiated the diplomatic, government and business circuit of imperial Iran as the nation rose in influence as a senior member of OPEC.
Later, for their children’s education, they would return to Wellington where Harry worked at the DSIR. He returned to Tehran after 21 months.
Dissent was brewing in Iran, and in 1979 he accepted the last seat on a Friendship aircraft out to Abadan. The Shah was deposed in the Islamic Revolution of February 1979. It would be 20 years before Harry would return again to Iran.
From New Zealand, Harry consulted to the international oil industry and to newly formed exploration flotations on the New Zealand Stock Exchange.
He was a popular speaker on New Zealand’s oil prospects during Headliner investor conferences in the 1980s, the heyday of the sharemarket boom, along with celebrity businessmen such as Sir Michael Fay and Sir Bob Jones.
Horticulture was also on the rise and he was involved in apple growing in Tasman, as the owner of Zagros orchard on the high-yielding soils atop the Mapua cliffs. He bred a new apple, ran a large packhouse and sold his fruit into the export market. ‘Zagros’ was a landmark with its tall radio mast for call-sign ZL2SQ and from an office upstairs he remained in touch with the world beyond.
Over the years the increasing red tape enveloping fruit exporting brought its frustrations and he downsized his fields of trees to a smaller scale site nearby and built a new homestead.
He and Maureen saw potential in tourism and so Zagros Tours was born; for many years they took tour groups to Iran, Harry offering a personal perspective on the architecture and culture of Persian empires.
His favourite Iranian city was beautiful Isfahan, where he was well known simply as ‘Mr Harry’. Though his preferred place remained the Zagros Mountains, “among the tribal people”.
He was blessed with a natural ability to be at ease with people across borders, from the powerful monarch to the working tourist. He regretted that the warmth and friendship of Iran’s people had been so obscured by the politics of the modern era.
During his last weeks, two were spent in excellent care at the new Stoke Hospice, and the remainder at home, with its long view to the north, and family close by. A private funeral was held at his home.
Tributes flowed from diplomats and colleagues and an appreciation came from the Iranian government for his goodwill towards Iran’s people, which spanned over six decades.
He is survived by his wife Maureen, daughters Christine and Linda and son Jamie, daughter-in-law Kerry and son-in-law Ashley.
Harry McQuillan Ph.D.
Geologist, university professor, orchardist