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Edward Fisher Pittman (1849–1932)

by T. G. Vallance

This article was published:

Edward Fisher Pittman (1849-1932), geologist and administrator, was born on 31 July 1849 in Melbourne, son of Joseph Pittman, stationer (later draftsman and clerk in the Victorian public service), and his wife Frances, née Bolger. He attended Scotch College for a few years and about 1865 began work as assistant to J. C. Newbery in the chemical laboratory of the Victorian Geological Survey. After the survey was disbanded in 1869, Pittman turned to mine-surveying and became a licensed surveyor. He left for London in 1873 to study at the Royal School of Mines and gained its associateship (mining and metallurgy) in 1876.

Returning to Australia, Pittman settled in Sydney. He worked as a temporary draftsman in the Department of Lands before securing appointment on 20 June 1878 as assistant to C. S. Wilkinson, geological surveyor-in-charge of the Department of Mines. In 1881 he resigned to become registrar and lecturer in mining and geology at the School of Mines and Industries, Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, but by December 1882 was back with Wilkinson as first assistant. From 1883 he was also chief mining surveyor for the colony. At Sandhurst on 21 August 1883 he married Kate Glass, daughter of James Eadie, surgeon, and his wife Susan, née Grant. On the death of Wilkinson, Pittman's uncle-by-marriage (Sir) John McIntyre interceded on his behalf with Sir Henry Parkes. Pittman was appointed government geologist on 21 December 1891. On 2 September 1902 Pittman became under secretary of the Department of Mines (and Agriculture until 1906), while continuing as government geologist.

Chairman of the Prospecting Board, Pittman served on various inquiries and assisted royal commissions during his long tenure of senior public office. He was involved with the establishment of the Government Metallurgical Works at Clyde and worked closely with his erstwhile survey colleague Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David to set up a school of mines within the University of Sydney. Pittman helped to secure government funding for it and from 1893 to 1903 lectured there, part time, on mining. Energetic and ambitious, Pittman spread himself, not always with happy results. Although his competence was unquestioned, he was less than successful in achieving close rapport with his geological survey staff. Indeed, resentment of his authoritarian style was barely contained during the years after 1902 when he ruled from a distance and seemed unaware of the extraordinary burdens borne by his subordinates, in particular by his eventual successor as government geologist, J. E. Carne.

The diversity of Pittman's scientific work matched his varied duties. Results of routine investigations are scattered through the annual reports of the Geological Survey. Selected themes were developed into scientific papers. Thus, with Edgeworth David, Pittman wrote on radiolarian rocks and occurrences of Devonian plants. His uncompromising belief in the meteoric origin of artesian water brought him into collision with J. W. Gregory who claimed the hot waters of the Great Artesian Basin in Australia were 'juvenile', from a deep-seated source. These two forthright geologists also disagreed on other matters. Each debated with skill and tenacity; their controversial writings are among their more interesting works. In mineralogy, Pittman is remembered for his discovery of willyamite (1893), a substance still accepted as a valid mineral species. His most substantial publications, however, Mineral Resources of New South Wales (1901) and Coal Resources of New South Wales (1912) are now read mainly for their historical interest. Eight of Pittman's papers were published by the Royal Society of New South Wales of which he was a member (1879-1930) and, briefly, a councillor. At the 1898 meeting in Sydney of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Pittman shared the secretaryship of the geological section with Edgeworth David; he was a vice-president of the section at the Melbourne meeting of 1913.

On 1 January 1916 Pittman began leave before retiring. Soon afterwards he returned to Melbourne, settling at South Yarra. He died in hospital at South Yarra on 18 November 1932 and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, daughter and son Ernest Ellis, a medical graduate of the University of Sydney who died in 1972, bequeathing his entire estate, valued for probate at $1,338,762, to the university.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • M. Reeks, Register of the Associates and Old Students of the Royal School of Mines (Lond, 1920)
  • Mineral (Sydney), 1955
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Nov 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Nov 1932
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

T. G. Vallance, 'Pittman, Edward Fisher (1849–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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