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Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David (1858–1934)

by D. F. Branagan and T. G. Vallance

This article was published:

Tannatt William Edgeworth David (1858-1934), by Judith Fletcher, c1916

Tannatt William Edgeworth David (1858-1934), by Judith Fletcher, c1916

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24376652

Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth David (1858-1934), geologist, was born on 28 January 1858 at the rectory, St Fagans, Glamorganshire, Wales, eldest child of the Rev. William David, sometime fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, and his wife Margaret Harriette, née Thomson, from whose family came the names Tannatt and Edgeworth. At first taught by his father, at 12 David entered Magdalen College School, Oxford, where for some six years he excelled at lessons and games before proceeding to New College in the university as a classical scholar. At moderations in 1878 he gained a first class in classics but a breakdown in health prevented him from reading for final honours. While convalescing he travelled to Canada and then on a round trip to Melbourne in the sailing ship Yorkshire. Back at Oxford, David attended Professor Joseph Prestwich's lectures on geology before graduating B.A. in 1881 (M.A. 1926).

Those lectures stimulated David's interest in a science to which he had been introduced by his father, an amateur of fossils as well as antiquities. His original intention to read for Holy Orders faded, to his father's disappointment, as the attractions of geology grew. In 1880, encouraged by a local naturalist, he began to study evidences of glacial action in his native district, work that led next year to his first publication. In 1882 he attended Professor J. W. Judd's course in geology at the Royal College of Science, South Kensington. About the same time, Professor Archibald Liversidge was asked by the New South Wales government to find in England a suitable man to fill the post of assistant geological surveyor formerly occupied by Lamont H. Young (1851-1880), who had disappeared in mysterious circumstances while on field-work at Bermagui. Strongly supported by Judd, Prestwich and Professor W. Boyd-Dawkins of Manchester, David was appointed.

He reached Sydney on 27 November 1882 in the steamship Potosi. By the end of the year he had prepared a geological sketch map of the Yass district and collected fossils there to replace material lost in the Garden Palace fire. Next March, with his chief Charles Wilkinson, David examined mining reserves in the New England region and, after Wilkinson's return to Sydney, settled down to a detailed study of the Emmaville district that kept him in the field until August 1884. He published his first monograph in 1887, as Memoirs, No.1, of the Geological Survey of New South Wales. Meanwhile, he travelled widely in the colony, reporting on various mineral and water resources.

On 30 July 1885 at St Paul's Church of England, Canterbury, he married Caroline Martha (Cara) Mallett (b.1856), whom he had met on the voyage to Sydney in 1882. She was travelling to take up her appointment as principal of Hurlstone Training College for female teachers. Much of their early married life was spent in geological field camps and two of their children were born at Maitland. In April 1886 David began a systematic investigation of the lower Hunter River region, that was soon to show publicly the worth of geological surveys. On 3 August he and his assistant G. A. Stonier (d.1948) discovered at Deep Creek in the Maitland district a seam of coal which by careful mapping they were able to trace in its subsurface distribution. The achievement was no less than the definition of a major new coalfield, the South Maitland, not by accidental prospecting but by the methods of field geology.

The coalfield survey also brought David his first experience as a public lecturer—to an audience of local residents packed into Maitland Town Hall to hear him outline the geology of their district. The success of that occasion was repeated later in Sydney and drew favourable notice from Professors Liversidge and William Stephens. After some hesitation, David decided to apply for the chair of geology and palaeontology at the University of Sydney, vacant after Stephens's death in 1890; he was selected by the local committee, against the choice of a committee in London appointed by the university to review overseas applicants. In May 1891, David became professor of geology and William Hilton Hovell lecturer in physical geography. Despite the grand title, his inheritance was a one-man department, miserably equipped and housed in a small cottage. A mining boom in the 1890s, however, helped him press the case for a school of mines within the university. By 1893 he had a new building with lecture theatre and laboratories and his first academic assistant to help cope with growing enrolments. Nevertheless, the distractions of office seem to have had little effect on the flow of his research publications.

Within his first decade as professor he enjoyed world wide repute, chiefly because of work on a remote coral island in the Pacific. David saw as a challenge the 1896 failure of the party sent by the Royal Society of London to bore a deep section at Funafuti, an atoll in the Ellice Islands. With the help of (Sir) Thomas Anderson Stuart, he raised funds for an expedition from Sydney equipped with diamond drills made available by the government. In June 1897 David left for Funafuti accompanied by his wife, a practical engineer and amateur scientist George Sweet, two senior students and a party of workmen. After many difficulties, not all of them mechanical, the drillers had reached a depth of 177 m by the time David went back to Sydney leaving Sweet in charge; he managed to take the work on to 213 m before the workmen refused to continue. Another party sent by David next year finished the job. The remains of shallow-water marine organisms brought from the bottom of the hole, finally 340 m deep, gave striking support for Charles Darwin's theory that coral atolls had grown progressively on slowly sinking platforms. Although the main technical reports on Funafuti did not appear until 1904, David's part in the venture was recognized by the award of the Bigsby medal by the Geological Society, London, in 1899; next year the Royal Society, London, admitted him a fellow. Mrs David published an 'unscientific account' of the expedition, Funafuti: Or, Three Months on a Coral Island (1899).

David's earlier interest in glaciation had revived while working in the Hunter River district: in 1885 a colleague from India R. D. Oldham showed him in the field relics of far older glaciation than that of Pleistocene age he knew in Wales. That the Pleistocene Great Ice Age was not a unique event in the earth's history was then a fairly new idea. Prompted by Oldham, David took up the theme with enthusiasm, devoting much time to the study of the late Palaeozoic glacial remains in the Hunter River district and, later, the Pleistocene glaciated country about Mount Kosciusko. By May 1906, when he set out by way of India and Europe for Mexico to attend the tenth International Geological Congress, David had become an authority on past ice ages; they were his theme at the congress. The year 1907 saw completion of part one (the sequel never came!) of The Geology of the Hunter River Coal Measures … promised to the Geological Survey since 1891. With that off his hands, he took a holiday at Kosciusko and learned to ski, a skill soon unexpectedly turned to account.

A few months later Ernest Shackleton invited David to journey south with his expedition and return in the Nimrod at the end of the summer. The university granted leave and in December 1907 David, with two former students (Sir) Douglas Mawson and Leo Cotton joined Shackleton in New Zealand. Even before his Antarctic landfall, David had decided to stay with the expedition. It meant taking unauthorized leave but the promise of scientific work (and, no doubt, adventure) in such remote parts was tempting beyond refusal. David's fiftieth birthday passed within sight of the active volcano Mount Erebus (3795 m). In March he stood on its summit, leader of the first successful climbing party. Impressed, Shackleton next spring gave him charge of an attempt to reach the south magnetic Pole. The journey of four months during which David, with Mawson and a young Scots doctor Forbes Mackay, dragged laden sledges from sea-level up more than 2200 m to their goal on the ice plateau and back, covering in all some 1250 km, has passed into the annals of polar exploration as an epic of courage and endurance. Captain John King Davis of the Nimrod praised David highly in his High Latitude (Melbourne, 1962).

In the general rejoicing at David's return to Sydney late in March 1909, the problem of his absence simply disappeared. Before leaving he had used his influence to secure government grants in aid of the expedition; now he embarked on a strenuous lecture tour of all the Australian States to raise funds for publication of the scientific results. His flair as a publicist ensured success for the venture just as, later, his whole-hearted support did so much to promote Mawson's Antarctic work. In 1910 David was appointed C.M.G. and that year took his Antarctic lectures to England; during the visit Oxford conferred on him its honorary D.Sc. (1911). He was in England again in 1913 busy with arrangements for the meeting in Australia of the British Association for the Advancement of Science next year. Despite the declaration of war in Europe the conference went ahead. David contributed greatly to its success, not least by the example of his tactful behaviour towards delegates from what had become enemy countries.

The conference over, David involved himself in patriotic efforts and, as president of the Universal Service League, became a leading figure at recruiting rallies. In 1915 he and Professor Ernest Skeats convinced the government that Australia should offer to raise and equip a corps of geologists and miners for services at the front; the offer was accepted by the Imperial government. David, despite his age, managed to enlist in the Australia Imperial Force and was commissioned major in the Mining Battalion on 25 October. He left for France and the Western Front in February 1916 and provided valuable advice on ground water and the siting and design of trenches and tunnels,—valuable pioneering work on military geology. On 6 October he was seriously injured when he fell 24 m when inspecting a well near Vimy Ridge; six weeks later he was back in action but never fully recovered. From June 1917, as chief geologist, he was attached to the inspector of mines at General Headquarters, British Expeditionary Force. Three times mentioned in dispatches, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1918 and was promoted lieutenant-colonel. His son served with the British army as regimental medical officer with the 6th Cameron Highlanders, winning the Military Cross, and his daughter Mary served as a motor driver with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and Women's Legion.

In 1919 David returned to Australia. He was appointed K.B.E. in 1920 and became known as Sir Edgeworth. He next took up a theme he had long projected, the preparation of a comprehensive account of the geology of Australia. In 1921 and again for 1923-24 he received special leave from the university to travel through the country gathering detail and conferring with colleagues. He resigned his chair in 1924 to devote all his energies to the work but, in fact, was never to complete it; he visited England in 1925-27. Failing health and a tendency to spread his interests, notably in the case of what he came to believe were ancient arthropod remains found in South Australia, did not help. Nevertheless, by a remarkable effort of will his large-scale Geological Map of the Commonwealth of Australia and a volume of Explanatory Notes were finished and published in 1932.

David in his time dominated Australian geological science with a benevolent mastery. International recognition of his work came early. Perhaps not an outstandingly original thinker, his great achievements seem to have derived from a remarkable capacity to recognize opportunities, whether conceptual or more immediately practical, and develop them fruitfully. Close contact with colleagues abroad may have helped him to be innovative in Australia. Yet his was no slavish dependence; he more than any before him conferred on Australian geological science a sense of identity and self-respect. As teacher as well as scientist he made his mark. By all accounts a captivating speaker, David attracted many able students to his subject and, eventually, his profession. He knew his students personally and they, in turn, clearly hero-worshipped the man they called 'The Prof' or 'The Professor' as if there were no other. That one so eminent could be so courteous and considerate enlarged his fame in the university and beyond.

David died of lobar pneumonia on 28 August 1934 in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and was accorded a state funeral by the Commonwealth and New South Wales governments; after a service at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral he was cremated with military honours. He was survived by his wife, son and two daughters. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote: 'Never previously in the history of Sydney has there been a more striking manifestation of sorrow, at once sincere and spontaneous, at the passing of a great man, who, by his works, his inspiration, and his quiet charm of personality, had filled a distinctive place, not only in science, but also in the hearts of the community'. After David's death, the State government purchased his manuscript material for the book on the geology of Australia and, repeating David's own instruction, commissioned William Browne to prepare it for publication. Of necessity largely written by Browne though bearing David's name as author, the book appeared in 1950 to complete, in splendid fashion, a record of more than 150 scientific publications and an unknown but considerable number of popular articles in newspapers and magazines.

Scientific honours in abundance had come to David—honorary doctorates of science were conferred on him by the universities of Manchester, Wales, Cambridge and Sydney, and the LL.D. of St Andrews. Geological and geographical societies across the world honoured him in their several ways; he is still the only Australian resident to have received the senior geological award, the Wollaston medal of the Geological Society of London, given him in 1915. Twice president of the Royal Society of New South Wales (of which he was also (W.B.) Clarke medallist), of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (recipient of its Mueller medal) and of the Linnean Society of New South Wales as well as president of the Australian National Research Council (1921-22), David played an active part in the life of these and many other Australian scientific bodies. Memorials to him are too numerous to detail: prizes, appointments, buildings, place-names commemorate him; he has been depicted on two Australian postage stamps. A portrait of David by John Longstaff is held at the University of Sydney and one by Norman Carter by the Royal Society of New South Wales.

Lady David had a long and distinguished career of service to the community. She was an early president of the Bush Book Club. In World War I she campaigned vigorously and successfully for six o'clock closing of public houses and was president of the Women's National Movement for Social Reform which aimed at the eradication of venereal disease. Her work on behalf of the New South Wales branch of the Girl Guides' Association was outstanding: an original divisional commissioner from 1920, she was State commissioner in 1928-38 and in 1934 was awarded the order of the Silver Fish—the highest honour for officers of the Girl Guide Movement. She died at Hornsby on Christmas Day 1951.

Select Bibliography

  • M. E. David, Professor David (Lond, 1937) and Passages of Time (Brisb, 1975)
  • Cardiff Naturalists' Society, Transactions, 67 (1934), p 13
  • Geological Society of America, Proceedings, 1935, p 215
  • Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1 (1935) no 4
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 61 (1936), p 341
  • Sydney Mail, 4 May 1921
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29, 30, 31 Aug 1934, 2 Jan 1952
  • T. W. E. David papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

D. F. Branagan and T. G. Vallance, 'David, Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth (1858–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Tannatt William Edgeworth David (1858-1934), by Judith Fletcher, c1916

Tannatt William Edgeworth David (1858-1934), by Judith Fletcher, c1916

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24376652

Life Summary [details]


28 January, 1858
St Fagans, Glamorgan, Wales


28 August, 1934 (aged 76)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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