Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William John Harris (1886–1957)

by Thomas A. Darragh

This article was published:

William John Harris (1886-1957), school principal and palaeontologist, was born on 10 December 1886 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, third child of William John Harris, a farmer from Cornwall, England, and his Melbourne-born wife Eugenie Elizabeth, née Hooper. Young William was educated at Naring West, Numurkah and Shepparton state schools before joining the Education Department in 1902. He entered Melbourne Teachers' College in 1907, received his Dip.Ed. in 1911 and continued to study at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1914).

First appointed to Kevington State School near Woods Point, Harris then taught at Strathkeller in the Western District. On 17 July 1916 at Wesley Church, Melbourne, he married Edith Garner Tilley (d.1937), a teacher. They had two children. He later transferred to the high school system, taught at Castlemaine and Kyneton and was headmaster at Echuca in 1923-43. In 1944 he moved to Warragul High School where he remained until his retirement in December 1951. He married Frances Marie Braithwaite on 19 May 1945 at St John's Church of England, Malvern.

Teaching in the country enabled Harris to pursue an interest in the palaeontology of central Victoria and from 1912 he spent his spare time mapping the fossil content of Ordovician rocks. Of his thirty-seven papers, the first—published in 1916 with encouragement from T. S. Hall—was on the palaeontological sequence of the Castlemaine district, building on the pioneering work of Hall in the same area. Following Hall's death, (Sir) Baldwin Spencer suggested to the secretary for mines that Harris should be asked to carry out graptolite identifications formerly undertaken by Hall. This suggestion was taken up and from 1916 Harris maintained a close association with the Department of Mines. In December 1934 he was awarded a D.Sc. from the university; his thesis was a collection of nine of his published papers.

When D. E. Thomas was appointed to the staff of the Department of Mines, he and Harris collaborated in a series of twenty-four papers. Of particular significance was their 1938 article in the Mining and Geological Journal in which they completely revised the classification and correlation of the Ordovician rocks, building on Harris's work on the graptolite succession of Bendigo East and his investigations of the Isograptus series. Their zonal scheme was subsequently applied throughout large sections of the globe, particularly in New Zealand, North America and Asia, in the elucidation of the sequence of Ordovician rocks. Harris's field-work with Thomas was carried out during the summer vacation, some of it in the mountains of Gippsland, accessible only by packhorse, where both combined a love of trout fishing with geology.

A respected schoolteacher, well liked by staff and students alike, Harris had been given civic functions at Echuca on receipt of his D.Sc. and on the occasion of his transfer. He was, as well, one of the most significant Australian palaeontologists and stratigraphers of the twentieth century. Harris died of cancer on 26 June 1957 at his home at Beaumaris and was cremated. His wife, and the son and daughter of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Mining and Geological Journal, 6, no 2, 1957/58, pp 21 & 64
  • Victorian Historical Journal, 69, no 1, June 1998, p 40
  • Riverine Herald, 15 Oct 1934, p 2, 15 Dec 1943, p 5, 1 July 1957, p 4
  • Warragul Guardian, 4 Dec 1951, 2 July 1957.

Citation details

Thomas A. Darragh, 'Harris, William John (1886–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 December, 1886
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia


26 June, 1957 (aged 70)
Beaumaris, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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