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Taylor, Thomas Griffith (1880–1963)

by J. M. Powell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880-1963), by L. F. Reynolds, 1919

Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880-1963), by L. F. Reynolds, 1919

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6077305

Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880-1963), geographer, was born on 1 December 1880 at Walthamstow, Essex, England, son of James Taylor, metallurgical chemist, and his wife Lily Agnes, née Griffiths. He attended a modest private school until 1893 when the family migrated to New South Wales where James secured a position as government metallurgist. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, briefly, and The King's School, Parramatta, in 1898 Griffith was employed as a clerk in the Treasury. Resigning next year, he enrolled in arts (later transferring to science) at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1904; B.E. [mining and metallurgy], 1905).

He excelled in science and mining engineering under Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David who nurtured his interest in palaeontology. Taylor contributed to David's demanding field programme, worked as a demonstrator in geology, lectured in commercial geography, collaborated in the production of an elementary geographical text on New South Wales and began corresponding with internationally-known geographers. Awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship in 1907 to Emmanuel College, Cambridge (B.A. [Research], 1909), Taylor was elected a fellow of the Geological Society, London, in 1909 and in 1910 completed Australia in its Physiographic and Economic Aspects (Oxford, 1911). He established strong friendships with (Sir) Raymond Priestley, Canada's Charles Wright, the Australian Frank Debenham and others who shared his passion for Antarctic exploration. David arranged for Taylor to join the new Commonwealth Weather Service as physiographer on his return from England.

When Robert Falcon Scott contracted to take the Cambridge group on the Terra Nova expedition (1910-13), it was agreed that Taylor would act as the Weather Service's official representative since Antarctica was known to exercise a powerful influence on Australia's climates. Taylor's youthful energy and irrepressible humour made an indelible mark on the historic, ill-fated expedition. During the long winter confinement, he was a popular participant in the lecture series and made lively contributions to the South Polar Times. As leader of the successful western geological party, he supervised the first significant topographical and glaciological interpretations of extensive areas, and his own physiographical and geomorphological research was rewarded in 1916 with a doctorate from the University of Sydney. The 'race' for the pole between Scott and Amundsen, and the deaths of Scott and his companions, attracted wide interest throughout the British Empire and accentuated the powerful aura surrounding every Antarctic adventurer. In 1913 Taylor was awarded the King's Polar medal and elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London. His With Scott: The Silver Lining (London, 1916) was well received, and he lectured on the subject in several countries. The mystique of the Terra Nova episode assisted his early professional career and, quite as importantly, the arduous field experiences on the frozen continent left a deep and lasting impression on him.

At Queen's College, University of Melbourne, Taylor married Priestley's sister, Doris Marjorie, on 8 July 1914 with Methodist forms; the bride was given away by the wife of his revered mentor, David. Between 1912 and 1920, confident and ambitious, Taylor rapidly consolidated and extended his reputation in physical geography and related fields. In his senior research position with the Weather Service he busily produced some of his most famous work on Australian meteorological conditions and 'climatic controls' in agriculture and settlement expansion.

World War I brought new demands and opportunities: the Weather Service was linked with the Intelligence Branch under the control of the Department of Home Affairs, and the character of much of the work undertaken was dictated by considerations of defence. Taylor also lectured in meteorology at the Commonwealth Flying School (1914-18) and in physiography at the University of Melbourne (1917-18). His early pronouncements on resource limitations and the inadvisability of tropical settlement have to be seen in this context; he established an independent viewpoint on these matters and refused to give way to political and military arguments. For similar reasons, he proposed the compilation of a national resources atlas (the idea was taken up after World War II) and served as a founder member of the Australian National Research Council in 1919. His 'pessimistic' and 'unpatriotic' forecasts for Australia's development infuriated the settlement boosters, notably in Western Australia and Queensland; Taylor was embroiled in bitter controversy at home and abroad. Undaunted, he accepted David's advice and in 1920 was appointed associate professor and foundation head of Australia's first university geography department, in Sydney.

The 'Australia Unlimited' catchcry won considerable support. Daisy Bates, William Grasby and respected scholars holding Imperialist views, including Professor John Walter Gregory, publicly challenged Taylor's efforts to dilute the appeal of Australia as the Empire's major field for White immigration. Naive and mischievous speculations on future population capacities of between 100 and 500 million abounded, but Taylor steadfastly insisted that the environmental factors would be sufficiently strong to restrict the total to about 19 or 20 million by the turn of the century. His influential opponents labelled him an 'environmental determinist'; at one point they arranged for Canada's noted 'possibilist', Vilhjalmur Stefansson, to inspect Australia's deserts and marginal regions and to expound on their potential in the metropolitan newspapers. Taylor's writings were savaged across the country; at one extreme, Western Australia's education authorities and university senate banned his text on Australia because of his temerity in employing the terms 'arid' and 'desert'. Taylor never gave quarter in his frequent battles with the optimists in the daily press: his serious technical and academic approach was sometimes carelessly laced with obscure literary references and pedagogical rebukes which his enemies considered arrogant and offensive.

The adoption of a 'national issues' orientation attracted students to the new Sydney department, but Taylor's denunciation of the White Australia policy, of the extension of continental railways through the interior and of the development of the tropical north was scarcely calculated to build a secure foundation for a young academic subject in a severely provincial milieu. Taylor attempted to expand his Australian interests into broad global generalizations and Environment and Race (London, 1927) established his name on the international scene. In 1923 he had been awarded the Livingstone Centenary medal of the American Geographical Society and his works were regularly cited in Britain and North America. On the domestic front, he belonged to the Royal Society of New South Wales and the Sydney group of the Round Table, and was founding president in 1927 of the Geographical Society of New South Wales and joint editor of the Australian Geographer.

Repeatedly denied the rank of full professor while he was being aggressively courted by prominent American universities, Taylor lost patience with the Sydney authorities and accepted a chair of geography at the University of Chicago, United States of America. He resigned his Sydney post in 1928, still unrepentant at the time of his departure. At a farewell luncheon given by the university in his honour, he indulged another hobby-horse, the need to strip the classics of their high status in secondary and tertiary curricula in order to accommodate more useful courses in geography and the sciences: he made a barbed allusion to his university's motto, Sidere mens eadem mutato ('The same spirit under a different sky'), which he rendered 'Though the heavens fall I am of the same mind as my great-great-grandfather!'

Although he remained at Chicago until 1935, Taylor was seldom at ease and never attempted to stake a personal claim to controversial geographical analyses of the United States. In 1935 he became professor of geography at the University of Toronto, Canada, and built a highly respected department. As in Australia, his idiosyncratic approaches delivered fresh statements on major national concerns: climatic limitations to the further development of the cold deserts were vigorously outlined as Taylor reclaimed his old niche, but in the case of Canada his generalizations were comparatively optimistic and corrected a much gloomier political and popular perspective. His views were well illustrated in his textbook, Canada (London, 1947).

On the broader front, he continued writing on environmental influences in cultural and urban development, notably in Environment and Nation (Toronto, 1936) and Urban Geography (London, 1949). He was president of the geography section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1938, and elected first non-American president of the Association of American Geographers in 1940 and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1942, but remained bitterly disappointed that he was never elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, an honour he had unashamedly coveted in his most productive years.

In 1948 Taylor accepted an invitation from the interim council of the Australian National University to join a team of consultants advising on the establishment of research schools. He spent three months touring Australia and delighted in his unusually warm reception. Sponsored by the British Council, he also made a lecture tour of British universities with Priestley, then vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham. Retiring from Toronto in 1951, Taylor decided to settle in Sydney. Before leaving, he was elected president of the new Canadian Association of Geographers which he had been promoting for several years. In 1954 he was made a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the sole geographer in that fraternity; in 1959 he became the first president of the Institute of Australian Geographers and was awarded an honorary D.Litt. by the University of Sydney. He was still publishing, on Antarctica and on the contribution of geographical studies to world peace, in the year of his death.

In his self-image Taylor was the enterprising frontiersman, pushing out one ragged and remote outer boundary after another, leaving the mundane in-filling to more timid types. He also made use of other workers' ideas when it suited him. His theories on racial origins, distributions and migrations attracted attention outside geography: Environment and Race provided anthropology students with useful elementary geographical information and demonstrated the importance of mapping; it was widely read, sold well and was translated into Japanese and Chinese. On the other hand, neither his vague reply to the Germans' Geopolitik in his notions of 'Geopacifics', nor his efforts in urban geography, was deemed worthy of lasting academic attention.

Taylor was never so brazenly or completely deterministic as some authors have claimed. Prior to his Sydney appointment he derived some amusement from the label, but he moved rapidly to safeguard his considerable ego as the debate intensified, and declared that possibilism might be preferable in the study of small, better-favoured areas. Though he maintained his view of himself as an enfant terrible, an anachronistic tone could be identified in several aspects of his work. It might be said, somewhat unkindly, that his deterministic stance mainly provided a convenient model for his broad attacks on themes which interested him.

He believed that academics had a duty to be professionally concerned with the great controversies of their day. In Australia in the 1920s Taylor's views on racial origins and dispersals, and on tropical development, were taken to imply either depopulation or support for Asian peasant settlement in Queensland and the Northern Territory; the powerful supporters of the White Australia policy howled him down. His remarkably accurate prediction of Australia's future population capacity remains highly regarded in political, administrative and academic spheres.

Survived by his wife and two sons, Griffith Taylor died at Manly, Sydney, on 5 November 1963 and was cremated. His portrait by Doris Toovey is held by the University of Sydney; topographical maps of Antarctica commemorate his pioneering achievements.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Powell, An Historical Geography of Modern Australia (Cambridge, Eng, 1988)
  • M. Sanderson, Griffith Taylor (Ottawa, Canada, 1988)
  • Geographical Review, 53 (1964), p 427
  • Australian Geographer, 12, 1972, p 115
  • Geographers, Biobibliographical Studies, 3, 1978, p 141
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical SocietyS, 66, 1980, p 163
  • G. S. Tomkins, Griffith Taylor and Canadian geography (Ph.D. thesis, University of Washington, USA, 1966)
  • Taylor papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

J. M. Powell, 'Taylor, Thomas Griffith (1880–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/taylor-thomas-griffith-8765/text15363, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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