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Nelly Hooper (Nell) Ludbrook (1907–1995)

by Bernard O'Neil

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Nelly Hooper Ludbrook (1907–1995), geologist and palaeontologist, was born on 14 June 1907 at Yorketown, South Australia, eldest of three children of Walter Edgar Woods, storekeeper’s assistant, and his wife Ethel Maud Mary, neé Hooper, both South Australian born. Ethel had been a teacher trainee at the University Training College (1900–01) and Nell read her ‘meticulously written’ (Ludbrook 1973) lecture notes when a child. After the family moved to the Adelaide Hills, Nell was schooled at Mount Torrens and then attended Mount Barker High School. In 1926 she proceeded to the University of Adelaide (BA, 1928; MA, 1930) to qualify as a teacher under an Education Department scholarship. Interested in science, she included geology and mathematics in her studies. In 1927 she was awarded, jointly, the James Gartrell prize for elementary comparative philology.

In 1929 Woods attended classes at the Adelaide Teachers’ College. At the same time, Cecil Madigan was intent on encouraging her interest in the earth sciences. He suggested that she work on a collection of fossil molluscs that Sir Joseph Verco had found in debris from a bore at the metropolitan abattoir. Embarking on this task, she visited Verco at his house to discuss the collection. She had already become acquainted with his great-nephew, Wallis Verco Ludbrook, a distinguished fellow student. She and Wallis would maintain contact after he began working for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Sydney and later in Canberra.

Woods continued to study and research, while teaching (1930–34) at Mount Barker High School. Her fascination with late Tertiary Mollusca in the St Vincent Basin expanded to encompass the entire Cainozoic (Cenozoic) era. In 1930 she won the university’s Tate medal for her paper on molluscs from the abattoir bore. Relocating to Canberra, she married Wallis on 25 July 1935 at the Methodist parsonage, Kingston; they would have no children. She maintained her interest in Cainozoic molluscs by examining material sent to her by South Australia’s Department of Mines and by becoming acquainted with the Commonwealth palaeontologist Irene Crespin. From 1942 to 1949 she was an assistant geologist in the Commonwealth Mineral Resources Survey (later Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics). As part of the national effort in World War II, she indexed and compiled statistics on strategic minerals.

With her husband due to commence research leave, Ludbrook determined to go to London to compare South Australian fossil molluscs with material held at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London (PhD and DIC, 1952). Soon after her arrival in February 1950 she was invited by Leslie Cox, a leading specialist in fossil molluscs, to locate herself at his workplace in the British Museum (Natural History). On 18 August 1951 Wallis, then acting officer-in-charge of the plant pathology section in Canberra, committed suicide by taking poison at work. At the behest of some of her husband’s relatives in England, she stayed on to complete her doctorate.

As Ludbrook prepared to return to Australia she met (Sir) Ben Dickinson, South Australia’s director of mines, who was visiting a professor at the university. He offered her the position of technical information officer in the department and the opportunity to develop a palaeontology section. Commencing in June 1952, she provided advice to the public on geology and mining, and later focused on palaeontological work in the Geological Survey of South Australia. In this latter role she recalled that she first ‘had to prove … that micropalaeontology was of economic use’ (O’Neil 1995, 163).

Ludbrook secured the cooperation of the department’s drilling branch and some senior staff in extending the system of collecting cuttings from water bores at regular intervals so that samples underwent micropalaeontological analysis. After studying the foraminifera, she used her understanding of the subsurface stratigraphy of sedimentary basins to better inform and direct the department’s searches for oil, gas, and groundwater resources. Maintaining that she ‘didn’t work on anything in the laboratory’ that she ‘hadn’t seen in the field’ (O’Neil 1995, 164), she also made regular field trips to the Great Artesian, Murray, and Eucla basins. She was appointed palaeontologist in 1957 and senior palaeontologist in 1964.

Although Ludbrook retired in June 1967, the department retained her services as a consultant. Even after she stepped down in the early 1990s, she continued to be active in the department and the profession. While not considering herself a trailblazer, she persistently promoted the role of women in the workplace. In 1944 she had been active in the formation of the Canberra Association of Women Graduates. An inaugural member (1952, honorary member from 1976) of the Geological Society of Australia, she was the founding secretary of the South Australian division (1953–56), served as Federal secretary (1956–59), and was the society’s first female president (1968). She had been an early member of its stratigraphic nomenclature committee and ‘was a driving force in the preservation of key geological sites and in the promotion of geological monuments’ (Alley 1996, 77). In 1961 she became the first female president of the Royal Society of South Australia and was the recipient of its Sir Joseph Verco medal in 1963.

An eminent scientist with an interest in comparative studies, Ludbrook’s status gave her a prominent profile both nationally and internationally. She had a profound influence in developing the knowledge of Australian palaeontology and stratigraphy both directly and through her mentoring of others in the scientific community. The Australian correspondent for the journal Micropaleontology from 1962 to 1966, her own publications included more than seventy scientific papers and monographs. She edited the series of handbooks on the flora and fauna of South Australia published by the State government from 1967 to 1980, and wrote A Guide to the Geology and Mineral Resources of South Australia (1980) and Quaternary Molluscs of South Australia (1984). Appointed MBE in 1981, she was also a fellow (1950) of the Geological Society of London, and an honorary associate (1971) of the South Australian Museum. On 9 May 1995 she died in Adelaide and was cremated. At least eighteen taxa, a zone in the Eromanga and Surat basins, and a fossil collection were named after her.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Alley, Neville F. ‘Obituary: Nelly Hooper Ludbrook, MBE, MA, PhD, DIC, FGS.’ Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia 120, no. 2 (1996): 74–77
  • 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
  • Johns, R. K., and B. J. Cooper. ‘Obituary: Nelly Hooper Ludbrook (1907–1995).’ Australian Geologist 95 (30 June 1995): 48–49
  • Johns, R. K. ‘Preface to …’ In Stratigraphy, Palaeontology, Malacology: Papers in Honour of Dr Nell Ludbrook, edited by J. Murray Lindsay, v. Special publication no. 5. Adelaide: South Australian Department of Mines and Energy, 1985
  • Ludbrook, N. H. Interview by Bernard O’Neil, 7 December 1989. Transcript. Department of Mines and Energy oral history program, J. D. Somerville oral history collection. State Library of South Australia
  • Ludbrook, N. H. Radio interview by Mary Rose Goggs, broadcast 2 December 1973. Transcript. J. D. Somerville oral history collection. State Library of South Australia
  • O’Neil, Bernard. Above and Below: The South Australian Department of Mines and Energy, 1944 to 1994. Special publication no. 10. Adelaide: South Australian Department of Mines and Energy, 1995

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Citation details

Bernard O'Neil, 'Ludbrook, Nelly Hooper (Nell) (1907–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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