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Cecil Thomas Madigan (1889–1947)

by L. W. Parkin

This article was published:

Cecil Thomas Madigan (1889-1947), by Frank Hurley, c1913

Cecil Thomas Madigan (1889-1947), by Frank Hurley, c1913

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23323356

Cecil Thomas Madigan (1889-1947), geologist and explorer, was born on 15 October 1889 at Renmark, South Australia, son of Thomas Madigan, contractor and fruitgrower, and his wife Mary Dixie, née Finey. Cecil was the eldest of two sons and two daughters. Family associations with the pioneer William Chaffey were close. Thomas Madigan died on the Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, goldfields so the children were raised by their mother who worked as a teacher. Cecil attended Adelaide High School and, on a scholarship, Prince Alfred College before studying mining engineering at the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1910, surrendered 1932 for B.Eng.), where he graduated as an exhibitioner, and the South Australian School of Mines and Industries. In 1911 Madigan went as a Rhodes scholar to England, but deferred the appointment when he was selected by (Sir) Douglas Mawson as meteorologist for the Australasian Antarctic Expedition.

Madigan was to install and read the meteorological instruments during the two-year project. He made several exploratory sledge journeys from the base camp at Denison Station, Adelie Land; on one, his party reconnoitred the ice plateau in winter, experiencing record cold and wind. In the summer of 1912-13 Madigan led the eastern sledging party which traversed the sea-ice and coastline of King George V Land, a round journey of 500 miles (805 km), which took two months. Overcoming many near-disasters, the party collected significant data on the ice, and discovered a coal-bearing rock formation. His account is in his chapter of Mawson's The Home of the Blizzard (London, 1915). Madigan's journey had coincided with Mawson's southern sledging party during which his two companions perished and Mawson struggled back alone to base camp only to miss the relief ship. Madigan led the group which had remained behind to wait for Mawson's return or to mount a search for him. Madigan received the King's Polar Medal in 1914 and published The Meteorology of Cape Denison, Adelie Land in the records of the expedition (1929).

After one term at Oxford in 1914 he joined the Royal Engineers, 76th Field Company, Guards Division, becoming captain in 1916. He served in France and was twice mentioned in dispatches. 'A fine looking, broad-shouldered fellow' of 6 ft 3 ins (191 cm), on 20 August 1915 in London Madigan had married Wynnis Knight Wollaston of Adelaide; he returned to the front immediately, was wounded, and after recuperating went back to France in May 1916. Their first son was born in July.

After demobilization he returned to Magdalen College, Oxford (B.A., 1919; M.A., 1922; D.Sc., 1933), taking first-class honours in geology and winning blues in rowing and boxing. In 1920 he went as assistant government geologist to the Sudan where he first encountered deserts and the use of camels in geological field operations. He returned in 1922 to the University of Adelaide as lecturer in geology, a post he held until his death.

A renewed friendship with Mawson, now professor of geology and mineralogy, coloured Madigan's academic career; both were heroic exploration geologists, of striking stature, vigour and personality; keen to succeed scientifically, they divided fields of interest—Madigan's arid central Australia, Mawson's the Antarctic and Precambrian South Australia. They influenced each other importantly. Their pupils regarded them with awe and affection. Madigan supported the students' union and the graduates' association and founded the Tate Society for students of the natural sciences whom he led in the field during vacations.

His initial South Australian research centred on Fleurieu Peninsula; the results appeared in papers published in the Royal Society of South Australia's Transactions in 1925-28. In 1929 he won the support of the State branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia and its president A. A. Simpson, and the co-operation of the Royal Australian Air Force for aerial reconnaissance of Central Australia and northern South Australia. This was the first time that systematic aerial strip-photography had been attempted in Australia and aeroplanes used for geological work. The surveys, in August, took nineteen days. The first covered the mines at Broken Hill, New South Wales, followed by a traverse across Lake Frome to Marree, then over the other dry salt-lakes—Callabonna, Blanche, Gregory, Torrens and Eyre, all in South Australia. The next flight ran north-easterly to Birdsville, Queensland, and the margin of what Madigan named the Simpson Desert. Three flights were then made over it, the first from Birdsville to Alice Springs, the second across the northern end to Lake Caroline and the Hay River, and the third south from Alice Springs, traversing the desert's length near its western margin. The party then ran several traverses across the vast, dry, salt bed of Lake Eyre and attempted to analyse the lake surface.

The aerial reconnaissance of Lake Eyre aroused Madigan's curiosity about this lowest area of the Australian continent, the focus of a vast drainage system bounded by the MacDonnell Ranges and the Queensland coastal ranges, a watershed of almost 500,000 sq. miles (1,294,995 km²). It seemed that the lake-bed might be accessible to a motor vehicle, so in December he made a ground survey and several auger holes were sunk in the lake surface. The results of the aerial reconnaissance and the Lake Eyre (ground) exploration were published in the local Geographical Society's Proceedings, 1929, and in the Geographical Journal, 1930. Madigan calculated that the whole lake-floor could never be covered by water; he would have been astonished and delighted by several total floodings since his death.

In mid-1930 he journeyed by camel through the MacDonnell, James and Waterhouse ranges and established their geological succession and structure. The results of this and earlier work were published in a series of papers and he wrote a popular account, Central Australia (London, 1936). Commissioned in 1932 by Sydney newspapers, Madigan had reported adversely on an alleged major gold discovery at the Granites, Central Australia. About 1933 he began to describe meteorites and their craters. He visited the Henbury and Boxhole craters in the Northern Territory and recovered and described the Huckitta meteorite, now in the South Australian Museum.

The Simpson is a sand-ridge desert extending 200 miles (322 km) west to east, the ridges running parallel from north to south at roughly quarter-mile (0.4 km) intervals, some reaching as high as 100 feet (30 m). Madigan planned a ground crossing in the winter of 1939. A party of nine, including a biologist, a botanist, a photographer and a radio operator, with nineteen camels, made the exhausting crossing from Andado station in the Northern Territory to Birdsville in twenty-five days. It verified Madigan's previous conclusions that the area was a wasteland. This last classic Australian exploration adventure pioneered the use of mobile radio communication; national broadcasts were made through the Australian Broadcasting Commission from desert camps. The scientific results were published and also a popular account, Crossing the Dead Heart (Melbourne, 1946). He saw the 'Dead Heart' as a land of everlasting sand-ridges and salt-encrusted clay-pans; while his conclusions seemed correct then, within twenty years the area was criss-crossed by petroleum explorers.

In 1940 Madigan became chief instructor in the School of Military Field Engineering at Liverpool, New South Wales, attaining the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Later he reported on water resources. He retired from the army in 1943 and returned to the University of Adelaide.

Madigan was a fellow of the Geological Society of London; president of the Royal Society of South Australia (1936), a council-member and its Verco medallist (1945); president of the geographical section of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1937); and Clarke memorial lecturer to the Royal Society of New South Wales (1938). He received the Murchison grant of the Royal Geographical Society in 1941 and was a local councillor of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia in 1939-46. He was State chief commissioner of the Boy Scouts' Association from 1934 and also worked for the Legacy Club and the National Co-ordinating Council for Physical Fitness.

He died in Adelaide of coronary vascular disease on 14 January 1947 and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery; his wife, two daughters and three sons survived him.

Madigan bridged the period between the era of intrepid endeavour and that of modern transport and communications; his work in the MacDonnell Ranges, the Simpson Desert and Lake Eyre made him an authority on central Australian geology and geography. In teaching he concentrated on practical geology and, at a time when the discipline was mainly academic, introduced students to its mining, engineering and economic implications, which later became major preoccupations. In 1962 at Birdsville a cairn was erected to commemorate his 1939 crossing of the Simpson Desert.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 71 (1947), p 1
  • Nature (London), 15 Mar 1947
  • PRGSSA, 48 (1947), p 67
  • News (Adelaide), 14 Jan 1947
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 15 Jan 1947
  • PRG 43 (State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

L. W. Parkin, 'Madigan, Cecil Thomas (1889–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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