Life in ancient corals

Tim Sherratt, ‘Finding life in ancient corals’, Australasian Science, vol. 15, no. 4, Summer 1994, p. 64.


Dorothy Hill’s fascination for corals was sparked not by the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, but by a visit to the small Queensland town of Mundubbera, about 160 km inland. There, in the late 1920s, the young Australian geologist discovered a rich deposit of fossil corals from the Palaeozoic era. It was the beginning of a distinguished scientific career that established Dorothy Hill as a world authority on fossil corals, and one of Australia’s foremost geologists.

A collection of the Mundubbera fossils travelled with Hill all the way from the Queensland bush to Cambridge University, where Hill continued her research for a number of years in the 1930s. It seems odd to go all that way to work on Australian corals, but it was very common for scientists of her era to further their studies in Britain. In any case, Hill was able to compare her fossils with British ones of the same age, discovering that descriptions of these were badly in need of revision. She took on this demanding task herself, but still found time to gain a pilot’s licence and to indulge in the odd (very odd) game of ‘bicycle polo’. Sport had always been an important part of her life. While studying at the University of Queensland she had represented both the University and her state in hockey!

Hill returned to her old university in 1937 as a research fellow, and has remained part of the institution ever since – as lecturer, professor, and professor emeritus. While she may have turned to palaeontology originally because it seemed ‘suitable’ for a woman of the 1920s, Dorothy Hill has not been afraid to take the lead in many areas, and has accumulated a wide range of distinctions and awards. These include the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London, ANZAAS’s Mueller Medal, and a CBE for ‘services to geology and palaeontology’. In 1956 she became the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and in 1970 was the first (and still the only!) woman to serve as its president.

Even though administrative and organisational duties took up much of her time, research remained Hill’s passion. She has published over a hundred scientific papers, mostly on invertebrate palaeontology (such as the fossil corals), but also on stratigraphy and the geology of Queensland. Her work on long-dead corals led her to puzzle over the mechanisms of coral growth, and she played an active part in establishing the research program of the Great Barrier Reef Committee in the 1940s and ’50s. Through her research, her teaching and her leadership, Dorothy Hill has played a major role in establishing the field of palaeontology in Australia. This was recognised upon her retirement, when the University of Queensland founded the ‘Dorothy Hill Chair in Palaeontology and Stratigraphy’.

Summarising such an outstanding career, it’s easy to lapse into cliches and describe Dorothy Hill as a ‘role model’, ‘a quiet achiever’, or ‘a great Australian’. While there’s some truth in all of these, they don’t really capture the spirit of a life so consumed by dedicated inquiry, observation and reflection. Fifty years after that visit to Mundubbera, Dorothy Hill still found her fossil corals ‘absorbingly interesting’.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply