This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993
William Rowan Browne (1884-1975), geologist and teacher, was born on 11 December 1884 at Lislea, County Londonderry, Ireland, and baptized in the Church of Ireland, sixth of eight children of James Browne and his wife Henrietta, née Rowan, National School teachers. Educated from 1897 at Coleraine Academical Institution, in October 1903 William entered Trinity College, Dublin, but soon withdrew, suffering from tuberculosis. He was advised to take a long sea-voyage and left for Australia in February 1904.
Reaching Sydney, Browne recovered after five months in a Blue Mountains sanatorium, then worked as a tutor at Inverell and on Wollogorang, near Goulburn. He gained classical and mathematical scholarships at the 1906 matriculation examinations, but, persuaded by the attractions of geology, enrolled in science at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1911; D.Sc., 1922). He never regretted the decision, even when Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David went to Antarctica in 1908, leaving the department temporarily under W. G. Woolnough. Browne graduated with first-class honours in mathematics and geology, and the university medal in geology.
Following a year at the Adelaide observatory, in 1911 Browne was appointed demonstrator in geology at the University of Sydney. Apart from six months in 1912 at the University of Adelaide standing in for (Sir) Douglas Mawson, Browne's academic career was fixed in Sydney. He became assistant-lecturer in geology (1913) and lecturer (1916). On 1 June 1915 at the Presbyterian Church, Neutral Bay, he had married Olga Marian Pauss (d.1948), daughter of the consul for Norway; they were to have two daughters.
Browne gained his doctorate with the university medal in 1922 for work in igneous and metamorphic petrology, based on field-studies at Broken Hill, and was promoted assistant-professor next year. Petrology commanded much of his attention until the early 1930s, although it increasingly shared place with more Davidian aspects of science—stratigraphy, orogenesis and physiography. He became widely known as a versatile geologist with a flair for synthesis.
In March 1934 David informed Browne that he was to take over and finish The Geology of the Commonwealth of Australia. Five months later David was dead, leaving Browne honoured but daunted. In science, as distinct from academic office, he became David's successor; no mere disciple, he had a mind of his own and used it. In November 1935, after purchasing an unseen manuscript from David's estate, the New South Wales government commissioned Browne to bring the work to publication. What had been bought, however, turned out to consist of bundles of rough notes; of some chapters there was practically nothing. Relieved of academic duty for several years, Browne began gathering detail afresh and making his own ordered refinement within David's framework. Writing progressed slowly, slower still when he had to resume teaching in 1940 (his title was then changed to reader), but by 1946 the London publishers held copy to match the title David had promised them some twenty years previously. Printed copies appeared in July 1950. Those aware of the long gestation were not deceived by the title-pages of the three volumes: David's name had a right to be there—but as inspirer rather than as author. Browne had crafted, in the name of his mentor, a landmark in the literature of Australian geology.
The practical challenges of engineering geology began to engage Browne's interest in 1943 when the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board invited him to investigate the provisional site for a storage reservoir on the Warragamba River. Once the place was shown to be geologically unpromising, Browne identified a better site. In 1946 the board adopted his recommendation; its president T. H. Upton remarked that the geological advice had already saved £2 million in construction costs. Browne continued as geological adviser until the dam was completed in 1960. Among other notable engineering works for which he contributed site studies was the Gladesville Bridge, Sydney.
Quaternary geology and the conservation of nature dominated Browne's later years. He had been the senior member of a party of scientists and geographers detailed early in 1946 to make a reconnaissance survey of the Kosciusko State Park. He withdrew from the university in December 1949 to begin an extraordinarily active and fruitful retirement. On 16 February 1950 at St Nicholas's Anglican Church, Coogee, he married Ida Alison Brown.
She had been born on 16 August 1900 at Paddington, Sydney, daughter of William George Brown, an insurance clerk from New Zealand, and his wife Alison, née Logan, a Sydneysider. Educated at Fort Street Girls' High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1922; D.Sc., 1932), Ida graduated with first-class honours and the university medal in geology. Having briefly held a science research scholarship, she demonstrated in geology at the university until 1927. That year she was awarded a Linnean Macleay fellowship which enabled her to develop geological investigation of the South Coast, a study in which she combined field-mapping with laboratory work in petrology. She travelled extensively abroad, attending scientific congresses and research institutes.
Ida returned to demonstrating at the university early in 1934 and next year succeeded W. S. Dun as assistant-lecturer in palaeontology, once she had hurriedly acquired new expertise. Promoted lecturer (1940), in 1941 she published a notable paper on fossiliferous Silurian and Devonian sequences of the Yass district. She had successfully negotiated the shift from hard-rock to soft-rock geology, both in her research and teaching. More distinctly palaeontological papers on Palaeozoic invertebrates (especially brachiopods) followed, as did studies in palaeontological stratigraphy. Ida became a senior lecturer in 1945, but resigned in August 1950.
The Brownes worked from home, making joint forays to their respective field-areas. Every summer from 1951 to 1955 William led parties of biologists and geologists to Kosciusko. He and Ida continued their field-work privately until 1965. While some of his interpretations of glacial history at Kosciusko may now be controverted, the importance of his careful and sustained research is unquestioned. He saw not only the landforms, but also the flora and fauna as under threat from human agencies. His David memorial lecture of 1952, in which he advocated restricted use of the high country, drew fierce criticism, particularly from grazing interests. The proclamation in 1962 of a 'primitive area' for conservation—although far smaller than Browne thought appropriate—owed much to his unflinching efforts as a publicist.
The couple supported local societies and frequently published in their journals. The Royal and the Linnean societies of New South Wales each claimed William as a member for over sixty years. He was a councillor of the Linnean Society for almost fifty years and its president (1928-29, 1944-45); Ida was a member from 1924, a councillor (1941-50) and president (1945-46). William was president of the Royal Society (1932-33): he received the (W. B.) Clarke medal (1942), the society's own medal (1956) and had a volume of its Journal and Proceedings dedicated to him (1966). A member of the same society from 1935, Ida was a vice-president (1942-50), honorary editorial secretary (1950-53) and president (1953-54). Both belonged to the Australian National Research Council and to the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science; William was president of Section C (geology) at its Hobart congress in 1949 and Mueller medallist (1960). A fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science, he was a councillor in 1957-60. He was also a founder (1927) of the Geographical Society of New South Wales (president 1929-30, 1948-49) and in 1952 of the Geological Society of Australia (president, 1955-56); the latter society now awards the W. R. Browne medal as its highest honour. Ida, too, had a long association with that society.
Careful, disciplined, with a seemingly unfailing memory, Browne was a rare scholar and stylist. A master of uncluttered argument, he communicated his thought without flamboyance, but with a humour the more memorable for its solemn delivery. He shone in the field, as observer and kindly instructor, and never complained when his spare, wiry frame underwent punishing exercise. Survived by his wife, and by the daughters of his first marriage, he died on 1 September 1975 at Darlinghurst and was cremated. His final publication had appeared six months earlier.
Ida's last years were blighted by a slow, paralysing illness which required the attention of nurses and the constant care of her husband. She died on 21 October 1976 at Edgecliff and was cremated. Reserved and dignified, at times unbending but helpful withal, Ida had made for herself a career in science, then not easy for a woman. Strength of character, intellect and a capacity for meticulous attention to detail served her well.
T. G. Vallance, 'Browne, William Rowan (1884–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/browne-william-rowan-9606/text16935, accessed 14 December 2013.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993