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Dorothy Hill (1907–1997)

by John S. Jell

This article was published online in 2022

Dorothy Hill, 1971

Dorothy Hill, 1971

University of Queensland Archives, UQA S909 p1381b

Dorothy Hill (1907–1997), geologist, was born on 10 September 1907 at Taringa, Brisbane, third of seven children of Robert Sampson Hill, an English-born draper, and his Queensland-born wife Sarah Jane, née Kington. Robert was later a director of the retail firm Allan & Stark Ltd. Although not wealthy, the family was comfortable and Sarah was keen that all the children should be given the best possible opportunities. After attending Coorparoo State School (1912–19), Dorothy excelled academically and athletically at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School (1920–24), winning the Phyllis Hobbs memorial prize for English and history; the sports brooch for athletics and field hockey; the coveted Lady Lilley gold medal, an occasional award for exceptional merit; and an open scholarship to the University of Queensland (BSc, 1928; MSc, 1930; DSc, 1942).

With a scientific outlook and strong social conscience, Hill hoped to study medicine, but it was not offered in Queensland. So she enrolled in chemistry and discovered geology, inspired by Professor H. C. Richards, later her mentor. She represented the university and the State in hockey, winning a university Blue. In 1929 she gained first-class honours in geology and mineralogy, and a university gold medal. A scholarship to encourage original research enabled her to begin detailed geological mapping of the Brisbane Valley, mainly on horseback. While visiting friends near Mundubbera, in the North Burnett region, she found and collected Carboniferous corals; this introduction to palaeontological research set the course of her career.

Awarded a university foundation travelling scholarship in 1930, Hill proceeded to England and entered Newnham College, Cambridge (PhD, 1932), where, under Gertrude Elles, she studied the Carboniferous coral faunas of Queensland and Scotland. Her work was so well received that she was awarded an Old Students’ fellowship of Newnham (1932–35), an 1851 Exhibition senior studentship (1935–37), and a grant from the Daniel Pidgeon Fund of the Geological Society of London. Researching the microstructure of the coral skeleton as it was deposited by the polyp, she developed terminology for its description, and described Australian fossil coral collections housed around Britain. At Cambridge, she learned methods of research, the necessity of a good research library, and the value of competent scientific colleagues. The university revived her interest in literature, music, and drama, and awakened her to ‘the effect of architecture on the human spirit’ (Hill 1976, 2). She explored the countryside for leisure and fieldwork, took up bicycle polo, indulged in rally driving, and in 1936 gained an ‘A’ pilot’s licence.

In 1937 Hill returned to her Alma Mater as a senior research fellow funded by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. In 1940 she obtained the Lyell Fund award of the Geological Society of London, for excellent work by early-career geoscientists . With W. H. Bryan, she investigated the microstructure of the coral skeleton, producing a landmark paper on spherulitic crystallisation (1941). She studied Australian coral-bearing limestones and by 1943 had described twenty coral faunas. Her paper that year reinterpreting the Australian Palaeozoic record significantly advanced the country’s stratigraphy. She also lectured in historical geology and became involved in Science Students’ Association activities, encouraging its members to undertake small research projects.

Early in World War II, Hill joined the voluntary, part-time Brisbane Mine-Watching Organisation. She subsequently headed a civilian cyphering service at General Headquarters, South-West Pacific Area. On 5 August 1943 she was appointed as a third officer, Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service, and posted to the operations staff of the naval-officer-in-charge, Brisbane. From September 1944 she was a member of the Inter-Service Demobilisation Staff, Melbourne. She was promoted to second officer in January 1945, before resuming her Brisbane post the following month. Her WRANS appointment terminated on 17 December.

From 1946 Hill was back at the university, gaining tenure as a lecturer (1947), senior lecturer (1952), reader (1956), research professor (1959), and full professor (1960). She wished to see Australian universities become internationally competitive and devoted herself to that aim. Her career would be marked by inspirational teaching; outstanding palaeontological and stratigraphical research; skilled administration and leadership; and generous collaboration with government geological surveys, the mining industry, and scientific and professional bodies.

Insisting that good teaching and good research go hand in hand, Hill was meticulous in preparing lectures and practical classes for her heavy teaching load, and was never too busy for student enquiries. Her supervision of honours and postgraduate students was intense, consisting of daily visits to them to discuss progress and offer guidance. After 1956 her undergraduate load decreased as other specialists were appointed, leaving more time for her increasing postgraduate supervision.

By 1946 Hill had been recognised as the pre-eminent specialist on Australian Palaeozoic corals, and overseas workers were visiting her or sending her collections, extending her knowledge of global and stratigraphic distributions. Ray Moore, editor of the worldwide compendium Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, invited her to contribute to the Coelenterata volume (1956); her long-standing collaboration with John Wells, an American co-contributor to the book, advanced coral palaeontology appreciably. She continued to study Palaeozoic corals until 1981, when she finalised her revision of the rugose and tabulate orders in two Treatise volumes, distilling fifty years of her intellectual inquiry. Researching Jon Stephenson’s large collections of archaeocyathids (fossil sponges) from Antarctica had taken her into a new field of palaeontology. With typical thoroughness, she produced a large monograph on the collections (1965), two papers on Archaeocyatha, and her revision (1972) of the Treatise volume on the phylum. With J. S. Jell, she furthered the investigation of the skeletal microstructure of corals, using a scanning electron microscope.

Soon after returning from Cambridge, Hill had become involved with the scientific study of the Great Barrier Reef, when she described (1942) cores that Richards had drilled in the reef. As secretary (1945–55) of the Great Barrier Reef Committee, she was effective in seeking funds and organising the construction of the renowned Heron Island Research Station. From 1970 she served on the committee planning the Australian Institute of Marine Science at Townsville. She reviewed all previous scientific work on the reef for the Australian Academy of Science’s Cook Bicentenary Symposium (1970). Her view that a reef-based petroleum industry would be feasible aroused opposition from many fellow scientists. In 1973 she presented an introductory address on the Great Barrier Reef to the Second International Symposium on Coral Reefs. Her larger influence was through her inspiration and mentoring of a generation of reef geologists at her university.

Using her gift for public speaking and skills in organisation and leadership, Hill took her share of administrative responsibilities within the university and her profession. She was sub-dean of science (1959) and, at a turbulent time, president of the Professorial Board (1971‑72). She met the challenges of student and staff protests head on, personally facing, and placating, protesters outside the senate room. Her transparency in dealing with all problems was much valued by the majority of the staff.

Hill fought for women’s rights and opportunities to rise to the highest levels. Although she experienced discrimination during her career—including not being able to join a superannuation scheme even when tenured—in her own words, she was not a militant women’s liberationist, believing it was better to achieve change by example. This she did, attaining many firsts for an Australian woman and challenging preconceptions of gender roles. Her support of female students was relentless, and she never tired of advising parents to encourage their daughters as well as their sons to seek the best possible education.

Identifying a need for a better understanding of Australian regional geology, Hill encouraged postgraduates to research fossil successions of various Queensland sedimentary basins. From 1950 the Geological Survey of Queensland and the Commonwealth Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology, and Geophysics had been mapping the State; she visited their teams year after year, often in remote camps, contributing on-the-spot identifications of macrofossils and interpreting local stratigraphy. In 1960, with A. K. Denmead, she edited The Geology of Queensland. Unprecedented levels of exploration for petroleum, coal, and other minerals occurred throughout Queensland in the second half of the twentieth century, and Hill was always willing to share her immense knowledge. Many senior geologists were her former students, facilitating cooperation between government, industry, and university.

In 1956 Hill had been elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, of which she was a councillor (1968–71), vice-president (1969–70), and president (1971). The Royal Society of London elected her a fellow in 1965. Her leadership and financial help were crucial to the establishment of the Queensland Palaeontographical Society (1962) and the succeeding Association of Australasian Palaeontologists (1974), of which she was made patroness and a life member (1975). In 1971 she was a founder and first president of the International Association for the Study of Fossil Cnidaria and Porifera.

Hill received many honours from academic societies, among them the Lyell medal (1964) of the Geological Society of London; the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mueller (1967) and ANZAAS (1983) medals; honorary life membership (1965) and the W. R. Browne medal (1981) of the Geological Society of Australia; and honorary fellowship of the Geological Society of America (1971). Numerous institutions with which she had been associated established awards and scholarships in her name. The State electoral district of Hill in North Queensland was named for her in 2017. Three volumes in her honour (1969, 1974, 1983) by her students and colleagues gave her much pleasure, especially as her greatest joy came from her students’ successes.

Within the University of Queensland library, Hill developed a comprehensive geological collection, donating her own library and paying for some of the journal subscriptions to build the best geological collection in Australia, which in 1985 was named for her and in 1997 incorporated into the Dorothy Hill Physical Sciences and Engineering Library. The university awarded her an honorary doctorate of laws (1974), established the Dorothy Hill chair of palaeontology and stratigraphy, and commissioned Rhyl Hinwood (1982) to preserve her likeness in a grotesque, with fossil coral in hand, adorning the Richards Building.

Retiring on 31 December 1972, Hill became professor emeritus, and continued researching until the late 1980s. She was made Queenslander of the Year in 1972, and was appointed CBE (1971) and AC (1993). A person of boundless energy, outstanding intellect, and exceptional vision, she was without pretention, epitomising humility and sincerity. She and her younger sister Edna never married and lived most of their lives in the Coorparoo family home, moving to St Lucia in 1967. Dorothy Hill died on 23 April 1997 at Corinda and was cremated. Her ashes were interred in the family grave in Toowong cemetery, where a memorial stone made of a Devonian coral was placed to commemorate her. She willed most of her estate, $1.3 million, to the university. By any yardstick, she had led a full life and had given much to many.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Campbell, Ken. ‘World Authority on Palaeontology.’ Australian, 30 April 1997, 14
  • Campbell, K. S. W., and J. S. Jell. ‘Dorothy Hill 1907–1997.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 12, no. 2 (1998): 205–28
  • Campbell, K. S. W., and J. S. Jell. ‘Dorothy Hill, A.C., C.B.E.’ Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 45 (1999): 195–217
  • Cooper, B. J., and D. F. Branagan, eds. Rock Me Hard … Rock Me Soft … : A History of the Geological Society of Australia. Sydney: Geological Society of Australia, 1994
  • Denmead, A. K. ‘Portrait of a Scientist: Dorothy Hill.’  Earth-Science Reviews 8 (1972): 351–63
  • Denmead, A. K. ‘Professor Dorothy Hill, C.B.E., Ph.D., D.Sc., F.R.S., F.A.A.’ In The Tasman Geosyncline—A Symposium: Papers Read at a Symposium in Honour of Professor Dorothy Hill, edited by A. K. Denmead, G. W. Tweedale, and A. F. Wilson, 1–2. Brisbane: Queensland Division, Geological Society of Australia, 1974
  • Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library. UQFL25, Dorothy Hill Papers
  • Grant, Heather. Great Queensland Women. Brisbane: Queensland Government, 2005
  • Gregory, Helen. 1987. Vivant Professores: Distinguished Members of the University of Queensland, 1910–1940. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Library, 1987
  • Hill, Dorothy. ‘The First Fifty Years of the Department of Geology of the University of Queensland.’ Papers, Department of Geology, University of Queensland 10, no. 1 (1981): 1–68
  • Hill, Dorothy. Interview by John Cole, 10 September 1981. University of Queensland Library
  • Hill, Dorothy. ‘A Personal View of This University’s History.’ University News (University of Queensland) 66, no. 2 (1976): 2–3
  • Jell, J. S.  ‘Dorothy Hill.’ In Brilliant Careers: Women Collectors and Illustrators in Queensland, edited by Judith McKay, 47–49. South Brisbane: Queensland Museum, 1997
  • Jell, Peter A. ‘Dorothy Hill (1907–1997).’ Nature 388 (1997): 234
  • Journal of the Geological Society of Australia. ‘Special Note: Professor Dorothy Hill, F.R.S.’ 12, no. 1 (1965): 167–68
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, Hill D
  • Pennell, Moya. ‘Dorothy Hill: Salt of the Earth.’ University of Queensland Graduate Contact 23 (Winter 2001): 29
  • University of Queensland Gazette. ‘Research Professor Dorothy Hill, D.Sc., Ph.D., F.A.A., F.G.S.’ 46 (May 1960): 4–5
  • Wilson, A. F. ‘Research Professor Dorothy Hill: Newly Elected Fellow of the Royal Society.’  University of Queensland Gazette 58 (1965): 1–2

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Citation details

John S. Jell, 'Hill, Dorothy (1907–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 23 June 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Dorothy Hill, 1971

Dorothy Hill, 1971

University of Queensland Archives, UQA S909 p1381b

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Life Summary [details]


10 September, 1907
Taringa, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


23 April, 1997 (aged 89)
Corinda, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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