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Sprigg, Reginald Claude (Reg) (1919–1994)

by Colin Harris

This article was published online in 2018

Reginald Claude Sprigg (1919–1994), geologist and ecotourism operator, was born on 1 March 1919 near Yorketown, South Australia, third and youngest child of Claude Augustus Sprigg, storekeeper, and his wife Pearl Alice Irene, née Germein, both South Australian-born. The family moved to Adelaide and Reg was educated at Goodwood Primary and Adelaide Technical High schools. Interested in rocks and fossils from an early age, he studied geology at the University of Adelaide (BSc, 1942; MSc, 1944), where Sir Douglas Mawson considered him to be precocious, but a gifted student. On 24 December 1942 at the Flinders Street Baptist Church, Adelaide, he married Patricia Amy Day; they would divorce in 1949.

During World War II Sprigg’s studies were interrupted by work for the Commonwealth Department of Munitions and then the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. In July 1944 he was seconded to the South Australian Department of Mines before being appointed as an assistant geologist in the department in April the next year. The nuclear arms race that accompanied the onset of the Cold War led to a world-wide demand for uranium. Already familiar with South Australia’s deposits of the mineral, Sprigg was placed in charge of the department’s uranium project and sent on a nine-month international study tour (1948–49). This, along with suspected communist sympathies, resulted in him being placed under surveillance for a decade by the Australian Security Intelligence Organization.

From 1949 Sprigg led the department’s new regional mapping section, which increased his knowledge of the State’s mineral and petroleum potential. In 1954 he resigned to form one of Australia’s earliest geological and geophysical consultancy companies, Geosurveys of Australia Ltd. The firm became closely associated with the exploration company South Australia and Northern Territory Oil Search Ltd (SANTOS), directing its efforts to the Cooper Basin in the far north-east of South Australia, where gas was discovered in 1963. It was an early example of the many ventures that Sprigg would undertake with Geosurveys and his later company Beach Petroleum Ltd.

Sprigg was unconventional and innovative. In the 1960s when there was little interest in offshore petroleum prospects, he had a diving chamber built for underwater exploration. He also embarked on several projects that were never going to be remunerative. Famously, he fought for many years to have mainstream geologists recognise that fossils he had found in 1946 at Ediacara in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges were of Precambrian age, evidence of the first large and varied multicellular animals on earth. The fossil genus Spriggina was named after him in 1957, but it was not until 2004 that his insights were acknowledged through the ratification of the Ediacaran Period, the first new period to be defined in 120 years.

While in Scotland during his study tour, Sprigg had met Griselda Agnes Findlay Paterson, a radiographer. After a courtship conducted largely by correspondence, the couple married on 3 February 1951 at Scots Church, Adelaide. Griselda often accompanied him into the field and, with their two children, completed the first vehicular crossing of the Simpson Desert in 1962. Six years later they purchased Arkaroola, a rundown sheep station in the northern Flinders Ranges. Although Reg turned his attention to ecotourism, he remained a director of Beach Petroleum (until 1987) and continued consultancy work. Apart from its scenic grandeur, Arkaroola contained geological sites that he had visited with Mawson in his student days. It was an ambitious venture, the property being remote from popular tourist routes and subject to isolation during heavy rains.

Appointed AO in 1983, Sprigg was awarded honorary doctorates of science by the Australian National University (1980) and Flinders University (1990). He was the recipient of the Verco medal of the Royal Society of South Australia in 1968, and the inaugural Lewis G. Weeks medal of the Australian Petroleum Exploration Association in 1982. In addition to his scholarly writing, he published a comprehensive account of Arkaroola in 1984 and two volumes of recollections in 1989 and 1993. Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, he died on 2 December 1994 in Glasgow while on holiday in Scotland. His ashes were scattered at Arkaroola. Awards, a lecture series, a mineral, an undersea canyon, and a research centre at the University of Adelaide, among other things, have been named after him.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • McGowran, Brian. ‘Scientific Accomplishments of Reginald Claude Sprigg.’ Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 137, no. 1 (2013): 1-52
  • O’Neil, Bernard. Above and Below: The South Australian Department of Mines and Energy, 1944 to 1994. Adelaide: Mines and Energy, South Australia, 1995
  • Parkin, Lee. ‘Geologist Dug Deep into Earth’s Mysteries.’ Australian, 9 December 1994, 13
  • Sprigg, Griselda. Dune is a Four Letter Word. Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001
  • Sprigg, Reg. Geology is FUN (Recollections) or The Anatomy and Confessions of a Geological Addict. Adelaide: the author, 1989
  • Sprigg, Reg C. A Geologist Strikes Out: Recollections, 1954-1993. Adelaide: the author, 1993
  • Weidenbach, Kristin. Rock Star: The Story of Reg Sprigg–an Outback Legend. Adelaide: East Street Publications, 2008

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Colin Harris, 'Sprigg, Reginald Claude (Reg) (1919–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sprigg-reginald-claude-reg-19112/text30685, published online 2018, accessed online 22 September 2019.

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