Eminent scientist David Goodall, 104, dies

Australian biologist and ecologist Dr David Goodall, AM, has died in Basel, Switzerland, aged 104.

Goodall had been Australia’s oldest working scientist, with a distinguished career that spanned more than 70 years. 

Born in England in 1914, Goodall became interested in science at a young age, first studying chemistry and then biology at St Pauls School in London. He went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree and a PhD in botany in 1935 and 1941, respectively, from London’s Imperial College of Science and Technology.

Goodall arrived in Australia in 1948, and over the course of the next two decades lectured and conducted research in Australia, Ghana, the UK and the US. During this time he became highly influential in the development of quantitative ecology. 

A special issue of the journal Plant Ecology honoured Goodall’s work in 2015, noting that until the mid-twentieth century, plant ecology had been primarily descriptive, but in the 1950s a number of individuals, including Goodall, sparked “a quantitative revolution” in the discipline.

Goodall wrote extensively during his career about the application numerical analysis to ecological data, and was the first to use a number of statistical methods in studies of plant communities. His work inspired generations of botanists and ecologists, and many analytical approaches currently in use in the field today extend from his pioneering work. 

Goodall eventually returned to Australia and was affiliated with CSIRO until his formal retirement in 1979. But this was not the end of his story. He became editor-in-chief of Ecosystems of the World, a 30-volume major book series that systematically detailed our planet’s major biomes, providing a comprehensive record of ecological knowledge. Publication of Ecosystems of the World spanned 40 years, and Goodall came to regard it as his biggest contribution. 

He was ultimately made a Member of the Order of Australia for his service to science.

Still academically active in his later years, Goodall became an honorary research associate at Edith Cowan University, where he continued to review, edit and publish papers, as well as co-supervise botany students. In 2016, the university requested he vacate his office on campus, citing concerns for his safety. The incident sparked international discussion about the treatment of elderly workers, and the university subsequently reversed its decision.

Goodall preferred his drama on stage, and was a self-professed Shakespeare buff. Having first performed Shakespeare in 1926 at age 12, he continued to tread the boards regularly during his life and became an active member of Perth based poetry performance group, Well Versed, at age 98. 

Since age 102, Goodall’s health and quality of life deteriorated, and he wished to end his days peacefully and on his own terms. A longtime member of Exit International, he travelled to Switzerland, where voluntary euthanasia is legal, and booked into a clinic run by the Eternal Spirit foundation. The father of four and grandfather to 12 reportedly passed away while listening to Beethoven’s Ode To Joy

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