In 1920, Tannatt William Edgeworth David was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. This gave biographer David Branagan one element for the title of his 2005 book, T.W. Edgeworth David: a Life: Geologist, Adventurer, Soldier and Knight in the Old Brown Hat.
As for “the old brown hat”, Branagan explains that, soon after landing a position as a professor of geology at Sydney University, in New South Wales, in 1891, “he took to wearing a brown hat, and he stuck with variants of it through the following years. It became famous amongst his students.”
He was born on 28 January 1858 in Glamorganshire, Wales. He was educated at Magdalen College School, in Oxford, and then proceeded to New College, Oxford University, as a classical scholar.
David’s article in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) says he excelled at his studies “but a breakdown in health prevented him from reading for final honours”.
“While convalescing”, it says, he travelled to Canada and also stopped in Melbourne, Australia.
Back at Oxford, he attended a series of lectures on geology while working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1881.
In 1882 he took a course in geology at the Royal College of Science, part of Imperial College London, in South Kensington.
Geology became his primary interest and, the ADB says, he began to study evidence of glacial action in his native district, work that led to the 1883 publication of “On the Evidence of Glacial Action in South Brecknockshire and East Glamorganshire”, in the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society.
Around that time, the New South Wales government began recruiting in Britain for someone to fill the post of assistant geological surveyor, to replace Lamont Young, who in 1880 had disappeared while investigating the Montreal goldfields near Bermagui, on the NSW coast (the fate of Young and his companions remains a mystery).
With strong support from his academic advisers, David was appointed.
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David Branagan gave a lecture in 1999 on David at the Australian National Library, in Canberra. He describes how the geologist joined the Geological Survey of NSW in 1882 and “took every opportunity to get to know the local geology”.
Two important areas of interest were in New England, in northern NSW, “mainly on the tin deposits there”.
“The final results of that work became the first memoir published by the Geological Survey of New South Wales which became, and has remained, a classic.”
Branagan says David then moved on to look at coal in the NSW Hunter Valley, to which, the ADB adds: “On 3 August he and his assistant … discovered at Deep Creek in the Maitland district a seam of coal which by careful mapping they were able to trace in its subsurface distribution. The achievement was no less than the definition of a major new coalfield, the South Maitland, not by accidental prospecting but by the methods of field geology.”
In 1897 David took over a failed expedition to Funafuti, the capital of the island nation of Tuvalu, which Branagan says “really made David’s name in the geological world”.
The idea was to test a hypothesis of Charles Darwin’s as to how coral atolls were formed, “by drilling down to a supposed basement of volcanic rock”.
Under David’s direction, the ADB says, the project “gave striking support for Charles Darwin’s theory that coral atolls had grown progressively on slowly sinking platforms”.
Further, it says, David’s part in the venture was recognised by the Geological Society, London in 1899, and in 1900 the Royal Society, London, admitted him as a fellow.
Branagan says one of David’s “key interests” was glaciation, which led him to take part in some daring exploits of Antarctic exploration.
“David’s Antarctic involvement spanned four decades,” says the Australian Antarctic Program website, produced by the Australian government. “In 1907, Ernest Shackleton sought his expertise for the Nimrod expedition. David, known as ‘The Professor’, recruited two of his former students, geologists Douglas Mawson and Leo Cotton. On the expedition, David led the first climbing party to the 3795-metre summit of Mount Erebus, an active volcano. David also led the party, which included Mawson, on the epic four-month journey to the South Magnetic Pole where the men covered 1250 kilometres by dragging laden sledges to achieve their goal.”
David also advised Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910-13 Terra Nova Expedition, and helped promote the first Australian Antarctic expedition, led by Mawson.
In 1915, as World War I raged, David and others proposed that Australia should create a corps of geologists and miners to serve at the front lines, advising on ground water and the siting and design of trenches and tunnels. The proposal was accepted and David, at age 58, was commissioned as a major in the Mining Battalion of the Australia Imperial Force. He left for France and the Western Front in February1916.
Branagan says one of David’s accomplishments was the preparation of maps, “probably the first real environmental geology maps”, which indicated by colour the degree of difficulty posed by the terrain.
“The brighter the colours, the better the conditions, so there was an attempt here to go much beyond straight geological maps into environmental-type maps. These maps were published for the army commanders, as David believed they were more informative and quicker to understand than pages of written text would be.”
After the war, Branagan says, David completed “the pinnacle of his work”, his Geological Map of the Commonwealth of Australia, completed in 1931.
He died of lobar pneumonia on 28 August 1934 in Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. In its obituary for him, The Royal Society paid tribute, saying: “The death of but very few has evoked such general sorrow and regret as was felt and expressed when … Tannatt William Edgeworth David passed into the great silent Beyond. For quite two generations past he, by his keen advocacy, ardent enthusiasm, and devotion in the search for truth had been a leading pillar of the scientific community in Australasia. But his good works were not confined merely to the realm of science, for his charming personality and deep concern in the national welfare carried him to well-deserved heights in public estimation.”
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
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