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Gregory, John Walter (1864–1932)

by J. F. Lovering

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

John Walter Gregory (1864-1932), by unknown photographer

John Walter Gregory (1864-1932), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1217

John Walter Gregory (1864-1932), geologist, geographer and explorer, was born on 27 January 1864 at Bow, London, only son of John James Gregory, wool merchant, and his wife Jane, née Lewis. After education at Stepney Grammar School, at 15 he became a clerk at wool sales in the City of London. His growing interest in the natural sciences led him to attend evening classes at the London Mechanics' Institute (Birkbeck College). He matriculated in 1886 and graduated B.Sc. with first-class honours in 1891 and D. Sc. (London) in 1893. Meanwhile in 1887 he was appointed assistant in the geological department of the British Museum (Natural History), replacing Robert Etheridge.

In 1891 Gregory made his first journey outside Europe, studying the geological evolution of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Basin of western North America. In 1892 he was seconded as naturalist to a large expedition to British East Africa; when this collapsed he set out on his own with a party of forty Africans. In five months he completed scientific observations in fields ranging from structural geology and physical geography to anthropology, and from mountaineering and glacial geology to the malarial parasites. His major success was the study in this region of the volcanic rocks and structural features of what he termed the 'Great Rift Valley'. His conclusions are summarized in two classic books—The Great Rift Valley (1896) and The Rift Valleys and Geology of East Africa (1921). Other major scientific expeditions were the first crossing of Spitsbergen with Sir Martin Conway (1896); in the West Indies (1899) with his wife Audrey, née Chaplin, whom he had married on 6 June 1895; and a 1500-mile (2414 km) walk with his son through Burma to south-western China and Chinese Tibet (1922). In 1908 and 1912 he headed expeditions to Cyrenaica (in Libya) and southern Angola, inquiring into the suitability of these areas for Jewish colonization.

On the death of Sir Frederick McCoy, the University of Melbourne decided to create a new chair in geology and mineralogy. Gregory was attracted to the possibility of creating a new geology department in a region rich in mineral resources. He applied and was appointed in December 1899. His arrival in Melbourne in February 1900 was heralded by the Age as opening a 'new era in the popularizing of University teaching in Victoria'. For his part Gregory called for new courses with 'field work, camping out, the linking of theoretical study with mining work, the advancement of the mineralogical features of the science'. Unfortunately the university then lacked the resources to enable him to carry out his relatively modest requests for accommodation and for funds to cover operating costs. Even the teaching collections had been spirited away to the National Museum in the city, leaving him with just one specimen.

In conjunction with his university appointment, in 1901-04 Gregory was director of the Geological Survey of Victoria, and in this role visited most of the mining areas; in January and May 1903 he gathered information for his book The Mount Lyell Mining Field, Tasmania (1905). In the summer of 1901-02 he led a student scientific expedition around Lake Eyre. The resulting book, The Dead Heart of Australia (1906), was remarkable for the coining of the evocative phrase 'dead heart' for the central deserts of Australia, and for the proposition (now discredited) that the hot waters of the Great Artesian Basin were of 'juvenile' or deep-seated, as distinct from atmospheric, origin.

With university permission, Gregory also accepted the directorship of the civilian scientific staff of the 1901-04 British National Antarctic Expedition commanded by Commander R. F. Scott. However he resigned (1901) when 'representatives of the Royal Geographical Society … and of a few scientific men belonging to the Navy' opposed the agreement that he would have charge of the landing party's scientific programme. Yet he gave generous praise to the scientific observations of Scott and his colleagues when reviewing the expedition's accomplishments in Nature, 25 January 1906.

At the request of the director of education, Gregory wrote a series of small geographical textbooks for primary schools and also gave classes in physical geography for secondary teachers, publishing the first general textbook on the geography of Victoria in 1903.

Despite his known ambition to stay in Victoria and help the development of an Australian school of mining geology, Gregory finally realized that the university was not going to provide him with the laboratory facilities for which he had continued to argue. In May 1904 he successfully applied for the new chair of geology at the University of Glasgow and on 16 September he left from Adelaide. His final shot, 'The mining policy for Victoria' (Age, 19 September), made a strong case for the importance to the mining industry of adequately supported practical geological training and for proper quarters for geological survey, and expressed concern for miners' working conditions.

In Glasgow Gregory soon built up a vigorous department and established himself as a formidable teacher, administrator and researcher. His informal manner, his stimulating lectures, his entire accessibility and readiness to discuss any subject at any time endeared him to his students until he retired to Essex in 1929.

An extremely facile and interesting writer, Gregory published twenty books and over 300 papers. In 1901 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. Many awards and honours were showered upon him, including medals of various societies and honorary degrees of the universities of Melbourne (D.Sc.) and Liverpool and Glasgow (LL.D.).

At 68 Gregory joined an expedition to Peru. On 2 June 1932 he was drowned when his canoe overturned in the Urubamba River in northern Peru. He was survived by his wife, a son and a daughter. A memorial to him is in Woodham Walter Church, Maldon, Essex.

Most who knew him were charmed by his diffident manner, enthusiasm and geniality and all were overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of his knowledge in virtually all subjects. Although rather small, he was exceptionally forceful and energetic. If there was a chink in his armour it was a tendency to elaborate theories after paying flying visits to regions of complex geology. Two critics in New South Wales were E. F. Pittman and J. B. Jaquet, who took issue with Gregory's hastily proposed 'saddle reef' theory for the origin of the Broken Hill ore lodes. Nevertheless most would view Gregory as an exceptional scientist whose greatest achievements straddled the shadow line between geology and geography. Gregory did much to counteract the parochialism of British geology and achieved for himself a world-wide reputation unequalled by any other British geologist of his time.

Select Bibliography

  • C. J. Gregory, J. W. Gregory—a Sketch (priv. pub., Chelmsford, 1977, copy at University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Nature (London), 16 May 1901, 25 June 1932, 27 Aug 1932
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, vol 1 (1932)
  • Geological Society of London, Quarterly Journal, 89 (1933)
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Feb 1900
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Oct 1904
  • Times (London), 14 June 1932
  • E. Lim, Professor Gregory … (manuscript, 1975, University of Melbourne Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. F. Lovering, 'Gregory, John Walter (1864–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gregory-john-walter-6479/text11101, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 29 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

John Walter Gregory (1864-1932), by unknown photographer

John Walter Gregory (1864-1932), by unknown photographer

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1217