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Joseph Newell (Joe) Jennings (1916–1984)

by Andy Spate

This article was published:

Joseph Newell (Joe) Jennings (1916-1984), geomorphologist, was born on 29 June 1916 at Wortley, Leeds, Yorkshire, England, only child of Joseph Newell Jennings, commercial traveller, and his wife Alice, née Rhodes. Educated at the Oldershaw School for Boys, Wallasey, Cheshire, young Joe studied geography at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge (BA, 1938; MA, 1945). He conducted research in Iceland in 1937 and on Jan Mayen island in 1938. At the outbreak of World War II he interrupted his doctoral studies in the department of botany to enlist in the British Army. Commissioned in the Royal Regiment of Artillery in June 1941, he was promoted to lieutenant in October 1942 and to temporary captain in April 1946. He served mainly in Iceland. On 14 March 1941 at the register office, Otley, Yorkshire, he had married Betty Mary Priest, a doctor’s receptionist.

Demobilised in 1946, Jennings accepted a lectureship in physical geography at the University of Leicester. Regulations inhibited him from resuming his doctoral studies, but a grant from the Royal Geographical Society allowed him to continue his work on the origin of the Norfolk Broads. Although the analysis was meticulous and the conclusions valid from the data obtained, his further work with Dr Joyce Lambert demonstrated that his findings were incorrect. With Lambert’s assistance, he published an able self-refutation. Turning to Australia `in search of wider horizons’, in 1952 he was appointed reader in geomorphology in the department of geography, Research School of Pacific Studies, at the Australian National University, Canberra. He arrived, with his family, in January 1953 and was naturalised in 1963. Made a professorial fellow in 1966, he was a foundation member of the department of biogeography and geomorphology in 1968.

Jennings’s academic career blossomed and covered a wide range of Australian landscapes—from changing sea levels to the highest peaks and from deserts to coral reefs. He began caving as a recreational activity but soon became immersed in the science of caves and karst, eventually becoming a world authority on karst geomorphology. In 1968-77 he edited the seven-volume series An Introduction to Systematic Geomorphology, of which his own contribution, Karst (1971), is a standard authority. He also edited the long-running series `Australian Landform Examples’ in the Australian Geographer and was an associate-editor for the Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie. Ultimately his publications numbered over two hundred.

His research was not confined to Australia but extended to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, Malaysia, China, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America. As well as geomorphological studies, he also published in the fields of zoology, climatology, and European exploration and land use in Australia. He enthusiastically accepted new ideas, methodologies and technologies. In 1972 the University of Cambridge awarded him a Ph.D. by letters. At his insistence, the doctorate was in botany rather than geography, marking the culmination of his pre-war research. It was recognised that his achievements warranted a D.Sc., but again he insisted that he be given the lesser degree appropriate to his original enrolment. President of the Institute of Australian Geographers, in 1975 he was awarded the (W. B.) Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales and the Victoria medal of the Royal Geographical Society, London. Retiring in 1977 `to make way for a younger man’, he continued to work as a visiting fellow until his death.

A remarkable mentor for his students, co-workers and the caving community, Jennings offered his unflagging friendship and advice to landscape scientists around the world. He had an enormous influence on Australian cave science and exploration, with particular emphasis on the Eastern Highlands, the Nullarbor and the Kimberley, as well as the sandstone karstlands across northern Australia. Jennings was perhaps the first to publish on the unusual young karst landscapes of southern coastal Australia: the so-called `syngenetic’ karsts. He was a founder (1956) and president (1958-60) of the Australian Speleological Federation. In 1983 the United States’ National Speleological Society bestowed honorary life membership on him.

Jennings was fascinated by, and revelled in, the Australian bush. He was an active camper, bushwalker and skier, as well as an enthusiastic lover of Australian red wines. Genial, extrovert and forthright, he had an abundantly vital personality, a fine brain and goodness of heart. He died of myocardial infarction on 24 August 1984 at Eucumbene, New South Wales, while skiing in the Snowy Mountains, where he had conducted much of his research. Survived by his wife, and their son and two daughters, he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Geographical Journal, vol 151, no 1, 1985, p 151
  • Australian Geographer, vol 16, no 3, 1985, p 169
  • O. H. K. and A. P. Spate, `Obituary: Joseph Newell Jennings 1916-1984’, Australian Geographical Studies, vol 23, no 2, 1985, p 325, and for publications
  • Canberra Times, 29 Aug 1984, p 16
  • ANU Reporter, 14 Sept 1984, p 7
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andy Spate, 'Jennings, Joseph Newell (Joe) (1916–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 February 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 June, 1916
Leeds, Yorkshire, England


24 August, 1984 (aged 68)
Eucumbene, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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