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Thomas George (Tom) Vallance (1928–1993)

by D. F. Branagan

This article was published:

Thomas George Vallance (1928–1993), petrologist and historian of science, was born on 23 April 1928 at Guildford, Sydney, elder of two sons of New South Wales-born parents Alfred Sydney Vallance, commercial traveller, and his wife Edna Vera, née Taber, who died in 1931. Tom and his father moved in with the boys’ strict non-conformist paternal grandparents at Sutherland; his brother Douglas lived with his maternal grandparents at Menangle. After primary schooling at Sutherland, Tom attended Canterbury Boys’ High School, matriculating in 1945. He studied at the University of Sydney (BSc, 1950; PhD, 1954), turning from an initial interest in chemistry to geology, particularly petrology, under the influence of William Rowan Browne. He graduated with first-class honours and the university medal, and was awarded the Deas Thomson and John Coutts (shared) scholarships.

As Linnean Macleay fellow (1951–53), Vallance undertook research in central-western New South Wales and the Broken Hill region for his doctorate. With Browne he produced papers on the Cooma metamorphic rocks and on the Kosciuszko landscape. He would maintain an attachment to the Linnean Society of New South Wales for the rest of his life, being elected president four times (1959, 1968, 1974, and 1988) and councillor emeritus (from 1992).

Having received a Fulbright-Smith Mundt award and a post-doctoral fellowship, Vallance worked at the University of California, Berkeley (1953–54). After the death in a plane crash of the University of Sydney’s petrology lecturer, Harold Rutledge, he was appointed to replace him. Returning via England he met the historians of geology Victor and Joan Eyles, and he soon began collecting historical material, particularly related to Australasia. He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1956. On 18 May 1957 he married Hilary Brinton Krone, also a geologist, at Christ Church St Laurence, Sydney.

A dedicated teacher, Vallance lectured every term, led vacation excursions, and supervised numerous graduate students. In 1965 he was promoted to associate professor of petrology. He undertook sabbatical leaves in Britain, Switzerland, and Germany; in 1961 he visited the University of Cambridge on a Nuffield travelling fellowship and delivered the inaugural Bennett lecture in natural science at the University of Leicester, and from 1977 to 1978 he was a visiting professor at the University of Geneva.

Vallance’s major achievement, later acknowledged worldwide, was his petrological study (1960) of spilites (altered basaltic rocks). This—initially disputed—work contributed to the understanding of the mechanisms acting during hot water circulation through the oceanic basaltic crust, ideas confirmed later through exploration of the sea floor by submersibles. Although G. C. Amstutz is recorded as sole editor of Spilites and Spilitic Rocks (1974), Vallance edited a number of the papers. He continued spilite studies into the 1970s.

About 1960 Vallance began compiling a bibliography of Australian geology, based on his extensive card index of geologists and miners who worked in Australia, or on Australian material. In 1975 he published an important paper on ‘Origins of Australian Geology.’ His strong comments about the absence of scientists in the early Australian Dictionary of Biography volumes were a major factor in the inclusion of many such figures in later ones. As well as contributing thirteen articles, he became a constant adviser to editors and authors. He was a foundation member (1967) of the International Commission on the History of Geological Sciences (INHIGEO), and later a vice-president. His historical research was acknowledged with the award of the Sue Tyler Friedman medal by the Geological Society of London (1993).

A member of the Commission for the Geological Map of the World, Vallance was the major compiler of and contributor to the Metamorphic Map of Australia (1983). From 1955 to 1956 he was federal secretary of the Geological Society of Australia (GSA), organising one of the society’s earliest large conventions, and chairman of the New South Wales division (1958–59). Elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London, he was also a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales. Although his research output was not large, it was of marked quality. He had high standards, and his editorial reviews of others’ work could be scathing, but they were intended to push researchers to improve, and those who persevered benefited from his comments.

Never a sportsman, Vallance kept fit largely by chopping wood and through daily timed walks to and from the railway stations en route to the university. Few students could keep up with him in the field, where he revelled in intellectually dissecting an outcrop before striding to the next point of interest. Fond of chamber music, particularly the work of J. S. Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert, he and Hilary for many years attended Sydney Musica Viva concerts. He was a convivial associate and—with Hilary—an excellent host, and enjoyed relaxing by the fire after a long day in the field, discussing with animation a wide variety of topics, from politics—on which he had strong socialist sympathies—to European and Australian history.

The first signs of cancer appeared not long after Vallance retired in 1989. A long-planned library-cum-office was constructed in the grounds of the family house, and he continued his research. He had almost completed a study on the work of Robert Brown, undertaken with D. T. Moore and E. W. Groves, at the time of his death; it was later published as Nature’s Investigator: The Diary of Robert Brown in Australia, 18011805 (2001). Survived by his wife, a son, and a daughter, he died on 7 March 1993 at Roseville, and was cremated. His card index of Australian mining scientists and geologists was posthumously compiled and published as a CD-ROM. In 2011 the Earth Sciences History Group of the GSA, with funding from his wife, established the Tom Vallance medal for work on the history of Australian geology to be awarded biennially.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Barkas, John. Personal communication
  • Branagan, D. F. ‘Thomas George Vallance, 1928–1993.’ In Useful and Curious Geological Enquiries Beyond the World, edited by D. F. Branagan and G. H. McNally, ix-xxi. Springwood, NSW: Conference Publications, 1994
  • Branagan, D. F., ed. Rocks—Fossils—Profs: Geological Sciences in the University of Sydney, 18661973. Sydney: Science Press, 1973
  • Johnson, Laurie. Personal communication
  • Vallance, Hilary. Personal communication
  • Vallance, T. G. ‘Presidential Address: Concerning Spilites.’ Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales 85, part 1 (1960): 8–52
  • Vallance, T. G. ‘Presidential Address: Origins of Australian Geology.’ Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales 100, part 1 (1975): 13–43
  • Vernon, Ron. Personal communication

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Citation details

D. F. Branagan, 'Vallance, Thomas George (Tom) (1928–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 21 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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