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Ralph Tate (1840–1901)

by A. R. Alderman

This article was published:

Ralph Tate (1840-1901), geologist and botanist, was born on 11 March 1840 at Alnwick, Northumberland, England, son of Thomas Turner Tate (1807-1888), teacher of mathematics and science, and his wife Frances, née Hunter. He was educated at Cheltenham College and the Royal School of Mines, London, where he was an exhibitioner in 1858. He taught at the London Polytechnic, at Bristol and in Belfast, where he founded the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club. He was appointed assistant curator to the museum of the Geological Society of London in 1864, having published work in geology, particularly palaeontology, and in botany. In 1867-68 he worked in central America and Venezuela largely on mining prospects; after returning to England he taught at mining schools in Bristol, Darlington and Redcar, and undertook a major investigation of the Yorkshire Lias. His work was recognized by the Geological Society in 1874 by the award of a moiety of the Murchison Fund.

When the University of Adelaide was founded in 1874 Tate was appointed to the Elder chair of natural science. His arrival in Adelaide in 1875 stimulated the small scientific community. By 1878 he had published a number of papers on local geology, and in 1880 he converted the comatose Adelaide Philosophical Society into the Royal Society of South Australia, becoming its first president. In 1877 he had founded the colony's first continuing scientific journal, which became the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of South Australia. In the same year he discovered at Hallett Cove impressive evidence of former glaciation. His earliest geological interest in his new homeland was in the sequences of Tertiary sediments in the coastal region south of Adelaide and in cliffs formed by the River Murray: this became the basis of his most notable work. He was also associated with the discovery and study of Cambrian rocks on Yorke Peninsula and of Mesozoic strata in the Great Artesian Basin.

The chair of natural science embraced botany and zoology as well as geology. Tate's publications on zoology as distinct from palaeontology consisted of about twenty papers, mainly on Mollusca. His contributions on botany, about forty, culminated in his Handbook of the Flora of Extratropical South Australia (1890) and were the foundations of the present knowledge of the plants of the colony. He persuaded the South Australian government to appoint its first permanent geologist in 1882; that year he accompanied a parliamentary party which investigated the potentialities of the Northern Territory, and was a key member of the W. Horn expedition which explored the Finke River region in 1894. He belonged to numerous learned scientific associations in Australia and overseas; a constant worker for the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, he was its president in 1893. That year he was awarded the [W. B.] Clarke memorial medal.

Tate's contribution to the growth of science in Australia, through his personal investigations and stimulation of research in natural science, can hardly be exaggerated. Only a man with an unlimited capacity for work could have accomplished so much. He was rugged and of 'marked personality', but able to induce great loyalty in friends and students; he was also a persistent and indefatigable conductor of field naturalist parties in South Australia. Although his activities provoked much controversy, all his work was marked by a fine critical sense, and this was certainly true of his work on Tertiary stratigraphy, probably his greatest legacy to Australian geology.

For many years Tate spent his leisure on a farm near Nairne, where he had a wattle plantation and a walnut grove; in later life he was an orchardist. He married twice. He died of heart disease at Buxton Street, North Adelaide, on 20 September 1901 and was buried in the North Road cemetery. He was survived by two daughters and a son of his first marriage, and by his second wife Mary and their daughter and two sons. His estate was sworn for probate at £1700. An obituary by J. F. Blake in the Geological Magazine (London), February 1902, lists Tate's publications.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • R. S. Rogers, An Introduction to the Study of South Australian Orchids, 2nd ed (Adel, 1911)
  • W. G. K. Duncan and R. A. Leonard, The University of Adelaide, 1874-1974 (Adel, 1973)
  • A. R. Alderman, ‘The development of geology in South Australia: a personal view’, Australian Academy of Science, Records, 1 (1967), no 2
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Sept 1901
  • Observer (Adelaide), 28 Sept 1901.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. R. Alderman, 'Tate, Ralph (1840–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


11 March, 1840
Alnwick, Northumberland, England


20 September, 1901 (aged 61)
North Adelaide, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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