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Edward John Dunn (1844–1937)

by A. W. Beasley

This article was published:

Edward John Dunn (1844-1937), geologist, was born on 1 November 1844 at Bedminster near Bristol, England, son of Edward Herbert Dunn, printer, of Cheltenham, and his wife Betsy, née Robinson. He migrated to New South Wales with his parents in 1849. At first they lived near Goulburn, but in 1856 moved to Beechworth in Victoria. Dunn was educated privately and at Beechworth Church of England Grammar School. From boyhood he was an ardent collector of minerals and rocks. In 1860 he joined the staff of the local Lands Survey Office, and four years later transferred to the Geological Survey of the Mines Department where he trained under A. R. C. Selwyn and G. H. F. Ulrich. He discovered curious specimens of chalcedony containing fluid near Beechworth; these specimens formed the subject of his first published scientific article. In 1869 he qualified as a mining surveyor.

In 1871 Dunn left Australia for South Africa, where he was appointed government geologist for Cape Colony. His pioneer geological work there included a part in the discovery of diamonds and the opening of the Kimberley diamond mines, and investigations of the goldfields of Transvaal and the coal deposits of Cape Colony. He became interested in anthropology and made extensive collections of the weapons and implements used by the tribes including those of the south-west African Bushman which he later donated to the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford. He also built up a valuable private collection of geological specimens, including gold and diamonds. Dunn had returned to England to study in 1873, and again in 1875, when on 7 July at St Helier, Jersey, Channel Islands, he married Elizabeth Julia Perchard.

Dunn returned to Australia in 1886 and, with Melbourne as his base, worked as a consulting geologist throughout Australasia and in New Caledonia. In 1886 near Heathcote he discovered and mapped the first rocks of Cambrian age to be found in Victoria. He also discovered very old (Permian) rocks of glacial origin and published the first of several scientific articles on them in 1888. Between 1889 and 1894 he carried out perhaps his best geological work in demonstrating the essential structures of the Bendigo goldfield.

In September 1904 Dunn was appointed director of the Geological Survey in the Victorian Department of Mines and Water Supply. He was closely connected with the discovery of black coal deposits in Gippsland, which led to the development of the State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi in 1909. He studied the geology and physiography of Mount Buffalo and helped to make it popular as a tourist resort; Mount Dunn is named after him. In 1911 his book, Pebbles, was published in Melbourne. Dunn's work in the Geological Survey was concerned mainly with economic geology, but other tasks included a study of australites; he donated his private collection of 120 of these to the British Museum.

After his retirement in 1912 from the Geological Survey Dunn worked for many years as a consulting geologist. His books, Geology of Gold and The Bushman, were published in London in 1929 and 1931. In 1884 he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London, which in 1905 awarded him its Murchison medal for his geological work in Australia and South Africa. Dunn was an excellent field geologist and administrator. He was a skilful and discerning collector and was meticulous as a curator. Most of the large private collections of minerals, rocks and ethnological artefacts that he had not disposed of during his lifetime are now in the National Museum of Victoria. He died at his home in Kew, Melbourne, on 20 April 1937 and was survived by his wife, one son and two daughters. He was buried in Kew cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. V. Zelizko, In Memory of Edward John Dunn, Geologist (Melb, 1937)
  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 16 May 1912, p 448, 30 Oct 1924, p 634, 1 May 1937, p 114
  • Victorian Naturalist, 54 (1937-38), p 20.

Citation details

A. W. Beasley, 'Dunn, Edward John (1844–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 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

Life Summary [details]


1 November, 1844
Bedminster, Somerset, England


20 April, 1937 (aged 92)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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