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Walter George Woolnough (1876–1958)

by D. F. Branagan

This article was published:

Walter George Woolnough (1876-1958), geologist, was born on 15 January 1876 at Brushgrove, Grafton, New South Wales, son of English-born Rev. James Woolnough, Wesleyan clergyman, and his American wife Phoebe Esther, née Hawke. He was educated at Sydney Boys' High School, Newington College—where he came under the influence of A. H. S. Lucas—and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1898). Attracted by the personality and teaching of (Sir) Edgeworth David, as an undergraduate Woolnough accompanied David's expedition to Funafuti Atoll in 1897 to test Charles Darwin's theory of coral reef formation. Having graduated with honours, Woolnough was appointed demonstrator in geology under David, and was lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide in 1901-04. The surveys he carried out in Fiji in 1901 and 1905, with the support of the Royal Society, London, earned him D.Sc. degrees from the universities of Sydney (1904) and Adelaide (1905). His first visit to Fiji left a legacy of recurrent thrombosis; his physical disabilities lost him a place on Scott's 1910 polar expedition and would result in his rejection for military service in World War I, but in 1911 he was able to join J. A. Gilruth's expedition to the Northern Territory.

In 1905-11 Woolnough was lecturer in geology at the University of Sydney, and acting professor during David's absences in 1906 and 1908-09. Woolnough was foundation professor (1913-19) of geology at the University of Western Australia where, with limited facilities and in makeshift quarters, he enthusiastically taught a wide range of geological topics. In 1913 the university awarded him an honorary D.Sc. A visit to Britain in 1919 to study salt deposits familiarized him with new aspects of economic geology; he joined Brunner Mond Alkali Co. which offered him the opportunity to travel widely in Australia. Reputed to have once walked 1000 miles (1609 km) in seven weeks, Woolnough used bicycle, horse, camel and car in his unsuccessful searches for productive salt deposits. In 1927 he became geological adviser to the Commonwealth of Australia, a 'temporary' post which he held until 1941. Having visited North American and Argentinian oilfields in 1930, Woolnough encouraged the use of aerial surveys and photography in the search for oil which he believed would be found in Australia and New Guinea in commercial quantities. In 1932 he recorded from the air the dome structures near Exmouth Gulf, Western Australia, where oil was subsequently discovered in 1953. Following his report on Commonwealth iron deposits, in 1940 the government placed an embargo on the export of iron ore and retained it until 1960.

After retiring in 1941 without a pension, Woolnough briefly turned to consulting and in 1942 began bibliographic and translating work. Forced by ill health to retire again in 1951 when aged 75, he continued to support himself by translating scientific articles from over a dozen languages often learned almost in the process of translation.

Woolnough's papers on the lateritic duricrust and on sedimentation in barred basins were major contributions to geomorphology and the theory of oil accumulation, but he published widely on a variety of geological topics. His periods of relaxation in Canberra were often spent with a geological hammer, looking for fossils. Bald in his later years, with a white goatee and small, twinkling eyes, he was described by a contemporary as 'one of the most likable of men', 'full of interesting stories'. Woolnough's daughter, however, remembered the fanatical honesty and sense of responsibility that had contributed to her father's 'lifelong sense of insecurity and unworthiness which stalked even his most successful and affluent years'. He was president (1926) of the Royal Society of New South Wales, (W. B.) Clarke medallist (1933), Clarke memorial lecturer (1936) and the Royal Society's medallist (1955); he was also an honorary member (1941) of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, a rare distinction, and of the Geological Society of Australia (1957).

Virtually incapacitated from 1954, Woolnough died on 28 September 1958 at his home at Northbridge, Sydney, and was cremated. On 19 February 1902 at Croydon, Sydney, he had married Margaret Ilma Wilson with Wesleyan forms. His wife, a son and a daughter survived him. A small seamount south-east of Sydney, a library at the University of New England, Armidale, a reserve in Darwin and the Woolnough Hills, Western Australia, are all named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Journal of Science, 21 (1958-59), p 136
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 84 (1959), p 3
  • American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Bulletin, Oct 1941, p 1954, Aug 1959, p 2035
  • Journal of Geological Society of Australia, 6, no 1, 1958, p 54
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Sept 1958
  • Sydney Mail, 12 Mar 1930
  • Woolnough papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. F. Branagan, 'Woolnough, Walter George (1876–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 January, 1876
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia


28 September, 1958 (aged 82)
Northbridge, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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