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Warin, Oliver Noel (1931–2008)

by John Farquharson

The former head of BHP and Utah International’s global exploration team, Oliver Warin, a geologist with an enviable record of discovery of mineral deposits in Australia and overseas, died in San Francisco, on 2 December 2008, aged 76, after a year-long battle with cancer.

He helped pave the way for the discovery of the Bowen Basin coal deposits, the Cannington zinc-lead-silver deposit in Queensland (very similar to Broken Hill), Kalimantan coal, Syama sulphide gold deposit in Mali, Escondida Cu in Chile, Reko Diq Cu-Au in Pakistan and the Ekati diamond field in Canada. These pioneering projects in turn sparked industry exploration and further discoveries, which made a contribution to the economies of Chile, Canada and West Africa.

Warin developed a theory about salt tectonics and mineralisation. The link with metal transport by brines led him to work with Martin Jackson on seismic and well data from oil exploration. He came to understand the mechanism of salt tectonics and the distinctive fold patterns typical of modern salt dome oil fields. He recognised these patterns in the Proterozoic sediments in the Mt Isa district and in the Katangan and Zambia copper belts, questioning current tectonic interpretations and suggesting novel settings for base metal deposition.

In 1994 the Australian Academy of Sciences awarded Warin the Mawson Medal, which recognises outstanding contributions to earth science in Australia, and he gave the Mawson Memorial lecture at the 12th Australian Geological Convention in Perth in September of that year. The citation for the award said in part, ‘Since taking over Utah International, BHP has become, under Warin’s direction, one of the most dynamic and successful of all mineral exploration companies’.

Born on 20 December 1931, in Revesby in the Lincolnshire Fenlands, he studied at Maldon Grammar School, in Essex, where his mother taught at the village school. He and his brother, Jack, were raised by their mother after their father died in 1934.

After being called up for national service, Warin won a scholarship to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he gained a degree in Natural Sciences, specialising in geology.

In 1955 Warin left Britain for Australia where he spent seven years field mapping in the Northern Territory for the Bureau of Mineral Resources (now the Australian Geological Survey Organisation). He arrived in Darwin so that he could directly join the field party based at Reynolds River, some 188 kilometres south-west of Darwin.

Dave White, his field party leader, recalls his first impression of Warin as one unlikely to last the distance of a six-month field season in the rugged tropical conditions. However, White misjudged him. Warin proved to be not only an effective geological mapper, but the life of the party with a mischievous sense of humour. Warin grew a thick beard, and it was difficult to remember what he really looked like. He played a trick on the field party by shaving off his beard, changing into clean clothes – white shirt and long trousers – and brief case in hand, walked into the camp looking like government official. Nobody recognised Warin, particularly the inebriated mechanic, who stayed off the drink for several days afterwards.

After exploration for uranium in the Rum Jungle area, Warin was in charge of the Bureau’s search for phosphate in Australia and the Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, which he recorded in a series of reports and publications. In 1961, Warin moved to the Planning and Co-ordination branch of the Bureau, in Canberra, as assistant and adviser to the Director, Sir Harold Raggatt. There he met Raggatt’s administrative assistant, Deirdre McIntryre, who he later married.

In 1962 he joined Utah Development Company as senior geologist, and was in charge of their investigations of iron ore and tin deposits in Australia and their search for phosphate worldwide. He then began developing a geological basis for the expansion of Utah’s exploration activities throughout the world. He was one of the first to recognise the coal-bearing potential of Indonesia.

In 1980, Warin was asked to lead the worldwide mineral exploration activities of the parent company, Utah International, from San Francisco, California. He continued in that role when Utah was acquired by BHP. He successfully led BHP’s global exploration team until his retirement in 1996.

As part of Warin’s efforts to create a global exploration team, annual staff conferences, organised in different exploration regions each year, became a forum for presentations of each project, where experiences and ideas were shared across the group. To further develop the exploration staff hired across the world, Warin supported his exploration manager, Jim Bratt, in offering positions of responsibility in other countries, starting international interchanges which saw individual growth and the development of a widely experienced team.

Warin’s geology was painted on a large canvas; the recognition of regional scale patterns and geological settings, leading him to predict the copper potential of Iran, as well as the massive sulphide deposits of Oman. This passion for predicting the location of the next ‘company maker’ drove much of Warin’s thinking. He would challenge conventional thinking, urging his geologists to look at the maps with fresh eyes. His exploration philosophy was driven by the challenge of predicting the setting of the target. ‘Get the geology right’ was his message.

An accomplished pianist, he also developed his skills in sketching, particularly after his retirement, into pastel drawings and portraits. His sculptures in clay and bronze rounded off the skills and vision of a truly remarkable man who lived life to the full.

His wife, Deirdre, his two daughters, Niki and Kate and their families, survive him.

Oliver Noel Warin, born 20 December 1931; died San Francisco 2 December 2008.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 19 February 2009
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 2009
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 February 2009

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Warin, Oliver Noel (1931–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/warin-oliver-noel-1001/text1002, accessed 11 August 2020.

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