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Gill, Edmund Dwen (Ed) (1908–1986)

by E. B. Joyce

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Edmund Dwen (Ed) Gill (1908-1986), palaeontologist, geomorphologist and museum administrator, was born on 11 December 1908 at Mount Eden, Auckland, New Zealand, son of New Zealand-born Arthur Gill, postman, and his Irish-born wife Mary Ann, née Dwen. Inspired by his rector and his science master at Gisborne High School, Ed enrolled at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1935) and the Melbourne College of Divinity (L.Th., 1933; BD, 1938). On 10 December 1935 at Warrnambool, Victoria, he married with Baptist forms Kathleen Winnifred Brebner, a music teacher.

Ministering in Essendon, Gill showed particular interest in youth work: he served as director of the Baptist Union of Victoria’s youth and religious education departments, and as a foundation member of the associated youth committee of the National Fitness Council of Victoria. Science, however, increasingly claimed him. In 1938 he published his first paper (on Yeringian trilobites) in the Victorian Naturalist, and for several years he studied zoology part time at the university. His ideas on evolution brought him into conflict with his Church. Already appointed (1944) honorary associate in palaeontology at the National Museum of Victoria, in 1948 he resigned from the ministry and became the museum’s curator of fossils, succeeding Robert Keble. He was appointed assistant-director in 1964 and deputy-director in 1969.

Gill’s work on Victorian and Tasmanian Siluro-Devonian stratigraphy and palaeontology expanded to include New Zealand, the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods, and overlapping fields of geomorphology, Quaternary environments and archaeology. His interests encompassed vulcanology, lakes and lunettes, megafauna, past floras and Quaternary palaeoclimate, Quaternary vertebrates and Aboriginal prehistory. The first to apply radiocarbon dating in Australian archaeology, he also used fluorine testing, oxygen isotope determinations of palaeotemperatures, archaeological excavation techniques in investigating the age of tektites, and maghemite readings in dating soils. In 1966 he suggested a date of fifteen thousand years for the human cranium found at Keilor, making it then the oldest known human remains in Australia; he also worked on the provenance of the Talgai skull.

An all-rounder in understanding the landscape of Victoria (recording his field-work in some sixty notebooks—together with religious and philosophical musings), Gill developed a detailed knowledge of the Melbourne area, including the built-over landscape, the River Yarra and the coastline of Port Phillip Bay. Studying the terraces of the Maribyrnong River, he evaluated the influence of sea level and climate change. From 1967 he directed a large research project on the Murray River at a time when a proposed dam at Chowilla would have flooded 529 square miles (1370 km²). The resulting Chowilla-Lake Victoria survey, published (1973) as a special volume of the museum’s memoirs, was an early example of a modern environmental study.

As the public face of the museum, Gill contributed lectures, articles, and newspaper and radio items to the community. In several instances, his research provoked dispute. He was criticised for his field mapping, and his dating of certain Siluro-Devonian units (later accepted) brought him into conflict with other workers, including David Thomas. His studies of shorelines and changes in sea levels were challenged by Professor Edwin Hills; although Gill was vindicated by later scholarship, his relationship with the university was strained for some years.

Gill had difficulty in accepting criticism, but his activity was undiminished. He was organiser of an international symposium on the Silurian and Devonian in Melbourne in March 1965; a highly productive secretary (1952-73) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science’s Quaternary Shorelines Committee; president of the International Union of Quaternary Research Shorelines subcommittee on the Pacific and Indian oceans; and co-editor for Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Paleaoecology (1965-86) and Pacific Geology (1971-81). In 1966 he was visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology; he also lectured widely elsewhere in the United States of America, and in New Zealand, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and South Africa. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Geological Society, London, and the Geological Society of America; a member of the Palaeontological Society; a foundation member of the Geological Society of Australia (1952) and of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (1964); and vice-president (1965-75) of the Anthropological Society of Victoria.

As honorary secretary (1956-65), research secretary (1966-68), president (1969-70) and honorary treasurer (1973-79), Gill revived a moribund Royal Society of Victoria. He organised a symposium on the basalt plains of Western Victoria that resulted in one of the first scientific regional studies published (1964) by the society. Awarded the RSV research medal (1967), he was made a life member (1972), and was honoured by a symposium on Victoria’s coasts (1979) and an annual research grant established in his name (1987). He was also a devoted speaker and excursion leader for the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, publishing more than seventy papers in the Victorian Naturalist and receiving the Australian Natural History medallion (1973).

Retiring from the museum as an honorary associate in palaeontology in 1973, Gill became a research fellow (1974-79) in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s division of applied geomechanics, Melbourne, continuing work on coastal processes. Known for his `rapid-fire pen’, Gill published approximately four hundred papers. A member of the Wallaby Club from 1959 (president, 1967), he was sketched by Professor John Turner in the field in 1980: with his neatly trimmed moustache, spectacles, coat, tie and tweed hat, he appeared to some an antipodean James Joyce. Gregarious and generous, especially to young workers, Gill possessed great charm, combined with a meticulous, formal style. Early in 1986, in declining health, he demonstrated the nature of shell middens at Hopkins River, Warrnambool, perhaps among the earliest evidence of human activity in Australia. Survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter, Edmund Gill died on 13 July 1986 and was cremated. Their eldest child, Adrian, a leading meteorologist and oceanographer, had predeceased him in April.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Attwood (ed), The History of the Wallaby Club 1894-1994 (1993)
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, vol 92, no 1, 1981, p 1
  • Australian Archaeology, no 24, 1987, p 48
  • Journal of Paleontology, vol 61, no 4, 1987, p 855
  • Quaternary Australasia, Oct 1986, p 62
  • Edmund Gill papers (Deakin University and State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

E. B. Joyce, 'Gill, Edmund Dwen (Ed) (1908–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gill-edmund-dwen-ed-12538/text22565, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 July 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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