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Benjamin Dunstan (1864–1933)

by I. G. Sanker

This article was published:

Benjamin Dunstan (1864-1933), geologist and public servant, was born on 8 July 1864 at Vaughan, Victoria, son of Benjamin Dunstan, a Cornish miner, and his wife Hannah, née Phillips. He is supposed to have shown an early interest in geology at the age of 9 by collecting sand samples from Brighton beach and taking them to the University of Melbourne. Believed to have attended the Bendigo School of Mines, he was later an evening student at Sydney Technical College, graduating in 1887 with honours in geology, mineralogy and mining. After graduation, he was employed by Cox & Seaver, consulting civil and mining engineers of Sydney, as assayer and draughtsman. On 27 December 1893 at St Paul's Anglican Church he married Ada May Wright.

Dunstan succeeded S. H. Cox as lecturer in geology, mineralogy and mining at Sydney Technical College, probably in 1891; he also acted as consulting geologist to the Australian Agricultural Co., Newcastle. He resigned in 1897 to join the Geological Survey of Queensland as assistant geologist, under Robert Jack. Appointed acting government geologist on 1 July 1902, on the retrenchment of Jack's successor W. H. Rands, he was not confirmed in the position until 1908; his title was altered to chief government geologist in 1915.

The range of Dunstan's geological interests was very broad. While a lecturer he investigated and made considerable collections of fossils from the Mesozoic rocks of the Sydney area. In Queensland he investigated the geology of central and northern Queensland, the coal deposits of the Dawson, Bowen, Styx and Burrum areas, the Anakie sapphire field and the Clermont and Croydon mineral fields. He prepared detailed geological maps of the Gympie goldfield and three editions of the geological map of Queensland; he provided geological information for palaeobotanical reports published by the Survey, by Arthur Walkom on the Mesozoic flora of Queensland (1915-19) and by B. Sahni on Mesozoic and Tertiary plant fossils (1920), and for studies by Robin Tillyard on Mesozoic and Tertiary insects of Queensland and New South Wales (1916 and 1923).

Dunstan both wrote and illustrated the section on Coleoptera in Tillyard's paper of 1923; he was also the author of an important series of articles on Queensland's industrial minerals (1920-21). Undoubtedly his best known work was the compilation of the monumental Queensland Mineral Index (Brisbane, 1913). Begun unofficially in 1901 as a card index, the completed work of 18,000 entries included details of mineral fields with references to geological reports, coloured geological maps, mineral production statistics, bore details and coal analyses.

The amount and diversity of Dunstan's work are the more remarkable when his administrative duties are considered. He initiated many changes within the Survey to improve efficiency, established a proper reference library and reorganized the format of official publications. He worked tirelessly to build up the Survey despite being hampered by lack of staff. After 1908 numbers improved, until by 1914, the 'heyday of Dunstan's rule', the Survey promised to be an outstanding institution. World War I, however, brought about a disheartening fragmentation and he never seemed to recover his earlier enthusiasm.

Dunstan believed strongly in the administration of technical departments by technical persons and advocated the establishment of a geological and mining museum. Involved with many official organizations and conferences on geology, geophysics, artesian water and technical education, he was responsible for what may have been the first use of aerial photography for geological purposes in Australia, photographing, and producing a photographic mosaic of six sq. miles (16 km²) of the newly discovered Mount Isa mineral field in 1924. His strongly worded recommendations played a significant part in the decision to build the strategic railway line from Duchess to Mount Isa.

In the late 1920s Dunstan became convinced of the value of geophysical methods in mineral exploration; in 1928-29 he went to Germany to investigate methods used by the Elbof Geophysical Co. and also visited Poland, Romania, Britain and the United States of America. Unfortunately, his compulsory retirement from the Public Service on 31 January 1931 prevented any real implementation of his findings. He then became a consultant for the Commonwealth government in New Guinea and for private companies.

A small man, with great personal charm, Dunstan was a fellow of Sydney Technical College and of the Geological Society of London. He was a connoisseur of gemstones, a photographer and water-colour artist and was interested in music. He died of cancer on 2 September 1933 at Toowong, survived by his wife and by one son and three daughters. He was buried in Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Geological Survey of Queensland, Department of Mines, Annual Report, 1897-1933
  • Royal Society of Queensland, Proceedings, 68 (1956), no 10, p 51
  • Queenslander, 1 Jan 1931
  • private information.

Citation details

I. G. Sanker, 'Dunstan, Benjamin (1864–1933)', 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

Life Summary [details]


8 July, 1864
Vaughan, Victoria, Australia


2 September, 1933 (aged 69)
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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