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Edwin Sherbon Hills (1906–1986)

by N. W. Archbold

This article was published:

Edwin Sherbon Hills (1906-1986), geologist, was born on 31 August 1906 at Carlton, Melbourne, son of Melbourne-born parents Edwin Sherbon Hills, hatter, and his wife Blanche Eva, née Toe. Edwin was dux of Lee Street State School, Carlton, and won scholarships to University High School, Parkville, where he played cricket and football and became senior athletics champion. He also co-edited (1923-24) the University High School Record, to which he contributed two poems. In 1925 he entered the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1928; M.Sc., 1929; D.Sc., 1938) with a metallurgy bursary and a senior government scholarship, intending to become a chemist. Soon, however, he was drawn to geology, in part through field excursions and also through the discovery of his colour blindness, which did not impede his accuracy in petrology. An outstanding student, he won several exhibitions, and with the Howitt natural history scholarship (1928) commenced work in the Cerberean Ranges on fossil fish, cauldron subsistence and acid vulcanism and physiology that won him the Kernot research scholarship. These became lifelong interests.

In 1929, assisted by an 1851 Exhibition scholarship, Hills undertook research at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London (Ph.D., 1931). Elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London (1930), he declined possible appointments in the United Kingdom to return to Melbourne in 1932 as lecturer in geology—a position created for him by Professor Ernest Skeats. On 26 August at the registrar-general’s office, Melbourne, he married Claire Doris Fox, who had joined him from London.

Hills carried a heavy teaching load, including palaeontology, stratigraphy, engineering geology, petrology, economic geology and physical geography. Awarded the David Syme prize for scientific research in 1940, that year he became senior lecturer and published the first editions of his classic books Outlines of Structural Geology and The Physiography of Victoria: An Introduction to Geomorphology. Students recalled him as `an excellent lecturer’, particularly to large first-year classes. Well organised and intellectually thorough, he favoured fact over theory; his lectures also `brought out the actor in him’, revealing a dry, keen sense of humour and timing

Made an associate professor in 1942, Hills was released by the university in 1943 and, holding the rank of captain in the Australian Military Forces, was attached to the North Australia Observer Unit by the Directorate of Research. He travelled through central and northern Australia, acquiring geological data for the construction of a detailed relief model. After the war this project was completed for the whole of Australia. The south-eastern portion of the model was mounted on the east wall of the lecture theatre of the School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

In 1944 Hills was appointed to the chair of geology and mineralogy at Melbourne. He immediately sought to improve facilities in his department amid the university’s postwar expansion. A library and workshop were built, the mineragraphic section of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was rehoused in a new extension, and research capacity was enhanced by the acquisition of equipment including an X-ray diffraction unit, a direct-current arc-emission ultraviolet spectrograph and one of the first thermogravimetric units for quantitative clay mineral analysis. He recruited new staff and later introduced courses in geophysics, geochemistry and geomorphology. Committed to encouraging original work from staff and students, he valued independence and individual enquiry; he had little time for research groups.

An innovative, eclectic and multidisciplinary scientist, Hills was, according to his colleague Dorothy Hill, capable of evaluating all aspects of an issue and seeing decisively `to the heart of any problem’. His own work—amounting to 130 scholarly publications—developed across four broad fields: fossil fish, acid igneous volcanism, physiography and structural geology. His study of fossil fish spanned the Palaeozoic and Cenozoic periods and the biological and biostratigraphical aspects of the faunas. He was intrigued by the evolution of landscapes. His physiographical studies explored diverse topics such as Cenozoic basalts, the Murray Basin and coastal geomorphology. Increasing pressures of administration kept him from completing his major work on acid volcanic cauldron subsidences, but his contributions to petrology and mineralogy demonstrated acute powers of observation. While dubious about theories of continental drift (conceding that he `couldn’t imagine the mechanism’ required to move huge tectonic plates), he made substantial contributions in structural geology, particularly his studies of lineaments and their relevance to the location of economic ore deposits and resurgent tectonics. Hills’s Elements of Structural Geology (1965), like his Outlines, went into several editions; between them, they were translated into Bulgarian, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Japanese and Hindi.

The applications of Hills’s research were extensive, particularly in economic geology and arid zone research. In the former, the mapping and survey work he began in the 1940s established interpretations that influenced subsequent mineral exploration. Representing Australia at the Royal Society Empire Scientific Conference, held in England in 1946, he called for greater Australian investment in developing `applied’ geology. In the latter field, his appointment in 1951 as Australian representative on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s advisory panel on arid zone hydrology and hydrogeology (from 1957 member, sometime chairman, of the UNESCO International advisory committee on arid zone research) led to work on issues in Australia, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, North Africa, Pakistan and India. Editor of Arid Lands: A Geographical Appraisal (1968), Hills made far-reaching observations on questions such as salinisation and contributed to the conservation and use of arid and semi-arid lands.

As a founding fellow (1954), member of council (1961-63), and vice-president (1963) of the Australian Academy of Science, Hills urged the establishment of the academy’s sub-committee (later national committee) on hydrology (chairman, 1959-68), and did much to advance the national and—again in association with UNESCO—international study of scarce water resources and their management. From 1946 he fostered strong links between his department and the Geological Survey of Victoria, working closely with David Thomas in encouraging young graduates to join the survey and undertake projects that were submitted for higher degrees at Melbourne and often published in the survey’s Memoirs. He also played a fundamental role in the establishment of the Geological Society of Australia and became its foundation president (1952-55).

Fostering science more generally, Hills was active in the organisational structure of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, serving as president of its geography (1947) and geology (1959) sections and joining its advisory committee in 1958. He was a prominent trustee (1946-70) of the National Museum of Victoria (deputy chairman, 1959-61; chairman, 1962-68; councillor, 1971-78). President (1955-56) of the Royal Society of Victoria, and chairman (1947-55) of its editorial committee, he exerted great influence on the standards of publication in its Proceedings.

Alongside such diverse academic and public work, Hills became a respected university administrator. He served as dean of science (1947-48), chairman of the professorial board (1959-61) and pro-vice-chancellor (1962, 1967) before being appointed Melbourne’s first deputy vice-chancellor (1962-71) at the beginning of a long period of mounting administrative crisis in the university. In this role, and particularly on staff and appointment matters, Hills was an innovator who struggled against ingrained institutional conservatism in overseeing, and consulting on, a `complete review of the university’ to meet new stringencies. These demands led him to relinquish his chair in 1962, but he retained the title of research professor in geology until his retirement in 1971, when the university council elected him professor emeritus.

For over four decades Hills was perhaps Australia’s most widely known and influential geologist. His work was recognised by the Geological Society of London’s Wollaston Fund award (1942) and Bigsby medal (1951), by an invitation to give its William Smith lecture (1960), and by an honorary fellowship (1967). He was elected a fellow (1954) of the Royal Society of London. The University of Durham awarded him an honorary D.Sc. In 1960. In 1971 he was appointed CBE. He attended many international conferences and visited universities and scientific institutions in Eastern and Western Europe, North and South America, South and South-East Asia, and China.

In retirement, Hills continued to serve on many committees of the AAS. In 1979 he was awarded the W. R. Browne medal of the Geological Society of Australia. Of average height, sandy-haired, always neat and energetic, he retained orderly thinking as his hallmark—although a lighter side could sometimes erupt (according to his successor as professor of geology, C. M. Tattam) with `almost alarming ebullience’. He treasured his family, often placing its needs over personal ambition. On 2 May 1986 Edwin Hills died at Kew, Melbourne, survived by his wife, and their daughter and two sons. He was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Academy of Science, The First Twenty-Five Years (1980)
  • R. W. Le Maitre (ed), Pathways in Geology (1989)
  • Australian Geologist, no 59, 1986, p 32
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 7, no 1, 1987, p 79
  • University of Melbourne, Gazette, Oct 1972, p 8
  • H. de Berg, interview with E. S. Hills (transcript, 1973, National Library of Australia)
  • Hills papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

N. W. Archbold, 'Hills, Edwin Sherbon (1906–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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