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Joseph Gentilli (1912–2000)

by Andrea Gaynor

This article was published online in 2023

Joseph Gentilli (1912–2000), geographer and climatologist, was born on 13 March 1912 at San Daniele del Friuli, Italy, and named Guiseppe Hefetz, eldest of four children of Jewish parents Elisa (Lisetta), née Jona, kindergarten teacher, and her husband Giulio Gentilli, grocery store proprietor and agricultural trader. Giuseppe’s carefree childhood was interrupted when Friuli was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian army in 1917 and the family was evacuated to Bologna. On returning to San Daniele, he went to the public primary school. There being no secondary school, he attended classes run by volunteer local teachers. In 1923 his family moved to the nearby city of Udine, where he graduated from commercial secondary school with a diploma in accounting. Not finding the course challenging, he read science, philosophy, and comparative religion in his own time, assembling a small library. He wanted to study zoology but with options restricted by his matriculation subjects, he attended the Venetian Commercial University (MA, 1934) where he studied languages, law, politics, history, and geography. On 5 March 1935 at Venice, he married Eliana Ricci, daughter of his former professor of geography; they would have two children.

As a university student Gentilli had undertaken compulsory military service, which he relished as an opportunity to explore the alpine landscapes of northern Italy and improve his discipline and physical fitness. His service completed, in 1934 he secured a position as assistant lecturer in the institute of geography at the University of Florence. But upon being conscripted for overseas service following Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, he ‘disappeared over the mountains’ (Gentilli 1990, 106). On his return he was court-martialled; he was also deemed to have resigned his university position.

While working for his father’s business, Gentilli continued to research and publish in geography. However, after the Italian government passed anti-Semitic legislation in 1938, he felt increasingly nervous about his prospects and decided to migrate to Australia. He arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, aboard the Ormonde in September 1939 and although disappointed at the confiscation of his Beretta handgun, appreciated the warm welcome by refugee relief volunteers. Having Anglicised his name to Joseph, he was introduced to Fred Alexander, head of the department of history at the University of Western Australia (UWA). The university was seeking a part-time lecturer in statistics, and Gentilli accepted the role. The position, however, offered only a bare livelihood and was not squarely in his area of expertise, so in 1940 the acting vice-chancellor, Frank Beasley, secured a grant from the Carnegie Corporation’s fund for refugee scholars to employ Gentilli as a lecturer in economic geography for three years. Because of Italy’s entry into World War II in June, he was interned as an enemy alien. University leaders advocated on his behalf, pointing out that he was Jewish and strongly opposed to fascism. After two weeks in Fremantle Prison he was released, though he had to wait until late 1943 for recognition as a refugee alien and freedom from restrictions.

Gentilli saw Western Australia as a suitable setting for original research in geography, as little had been done. He began in 1941 by translating the official statistics into maps—firstly of agricultural crops, then rainfall and wheat yields. Having been appointed lecturer in economic geography in March 1947, his focus on spatial knowledge for development led to the research in climatology that would make him one of Australia’s most influential geographers. He produced detailed climatic maps and a global geography of climate that gave due attention to the southern hemisphere. In an early exploration of climatic change over time, inspired partly by accounts of local biogeographical change, as well as the emergence of secondary salinity in the wheat-belt, he found that winters in south-western Australia had become wetter, while temperatures in Perth had increased. His curiosity about regional climate and biogeography also led him to identify the ‘rafts’ of warm water along the south-western Australian coast that would later be called the Leeuwin Current. Having divorced his first wife after she refused to join him in Australia, on 21 April 1950 he married Melva Veronica Smith, a teacher.

Promoted to senior lecturer in 1954 and reader in geography in 1965, by the 1970s Gentilli was internationally recognised as a climatologist, contributing the Australia and New Zealand volume to the world survey of climatology (1971), and publishing Australian Climate Patterns in 1972. In 1977 he joined a select group of international experts informing a major report on Climate Change to the Year 2000, produced by the American National Defense University. Nearing the end of his career, doubtless influenced by his own life experiences, he made significant research contributions to both migration studies and geography education.

Gentilli’s work spanned both human and physical geography. Adept at quantitative methods and modelling, he was an expansive thinker, committed to the application of geographical knowledge to contemporary social and political issues. In 1949 he had proposed, for example, that Australia was not a Pacific nation but an Indian Ocean one, and to be ‘sociable and humane—and realistic as well’ (Gentilli 1949, 76) Australia should develop relationships with other Indian Ocean states. He also sought to cultivate geographical awareness in rising generations, writing textbooks, setting State examination papers, running the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s secondary school geography broadcasts, and organising circulation of geographical films to secondary schools. Having retired from UWA in 1977, he continued in the department as a visiting fellow until 2000.

In keeping with his enlightened outlook, Gentilli led a rich public life in his adopted home city. In the 1940s he participated in initiatives organised by the Australian Italian anti-fascist movement; he also played an active role in the Perth Jewish community. His progressive Zionist editorial contributions to the Westralian Judean sometimes stirred controversy. He helped to establish the Dante Alighieri Society in 1954, serving as inaugural secretary (1954–56, 1960, 1962, 1964–65, 1967–68) and president (1957–58, 1963). An advocate for nature conservation, he was president of the Western Australian Naturalists’ Club (1950–51). He was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic (1968), and was appointed AO in 1996. UWA conferred on him an honorary doctorate of science in 1981. He published his memoirs, which he described as neither ‘dramatic, emotional [n]or controversial’ (Gentilli 1990, 93), in 1990. Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 1 August 2000 at Nedlands, Perth, and was cremated. An annual lecture at UWA commemorates his contribution to his discipline and the university.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Dodson, John. ‘Obituary.’ Journal of the Royal Society of Western Australia 83 (2000): 99
  • Freedman, Bernard. ‘Geographer with a Difference.’ Australian Jewish News, 2 February 1996, 6
  • Gentilli, J. ‘Australia—India or Pacific?’ Australian Quarterly 21, no. 1 (March 1949): 72–76
  • Gentilli, Joseph. ‘Tracks Along the Way: Thoughts and Views From My Life. Journal of the Australian Jewish Historical Society XI, no. 1 (November 1990): 93–127
  • Guarnieri, Patrizia, ed. Intellectuals Displaced from Fascist Italy. Florence, Italy: Firenze University Press, 2019. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. A12508, 31/2409, Joseph Gentilli
  • National Archives of Australia. A1361/1, 34/1/12 PART 630, Joseph Gentilli
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838/194, 1535/18/1145, Joseph Gentilli
  • National Archives of Australia. A6126, 560, Joseph Gentilli
  • University of Western Australia Archives. Cons 116 Item P275, Joseph Gentilli (staff file)

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Andrea Gaynor, 'Gentilli, Joseph (1912–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Gentilli, Guiseppe Hefetz

13 March, 1912
San Daniele del Friuli, Italy


1 August, 2000 (aged 88)
Nedlands, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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