David Evan Thomas 1902-1978

Written by E. S. Hills.

David Evan Thomas was born on 4 August 1902 in Ammanford, Wales, the third son of Thomas and Margaret Thomas. His mother's family had included several ministers of the gospel, and his father, a Weshman born at Pontardulais, was an urban official who, although self-taught, was a brilliant organist and pianist. David himself had possessed a fine soprano voice as a young boy, and displayed a keen interest in music which he retained in later life. He attended primary school at Parcyrhun from 1908 to 1914, and gained Free Place Scholarships, renewable annually, for secondary schooling at the Amman Valley County School, where in the later years he developed into an outstanding figure as Senior Prefect (1920), Captain of Rugby (1917-19), Captain of Cricket (1920), and for a time Chairman of the Library and Debating Society.

From 1921 to 1924 he studied science in the University College of Wales at Aberystwyth, gaining some financial support by part time work as a coal miner. He graduated magna cum laude in 1923 as Bachelor of Science with Honours in Geography and Anthropology, further achieving Honours in Geology in 1924 when he was the Rudlen Exhibition Scholar in that subject. In geography he had studied under the distinguished human geographer H. J. Fleure, and in geology under W. J. Pugh, both of whom were subsequently to be elected to Fellowship of the Royal Society of London and Pugh to become Director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, after both had held Chairs at the University of Manchester. A student colleague in geography, E. G. Bowen, later became Professor of the subject at Aberystwyth.

After graduation, the only posts available to Thomas were as underground surveyor at the Blaenau Colliery, South Wales, and again for a time as a miner at the Pantyffynon Colliery, Ammanford. He decided to emigrate, and sailed in mid-1925 for Australia under the Y.M.C.A. Migration Scheme. His arrival in Fremantle coincided with a seamen's strike, and he completed his journey to Melbourne by train.

Joining the Education Department in November 1925, he was appointed headmaster to a remote rural primary school at Kennedy's Creek in the Otway Ranges where as he was amused to recall, the staple winter diet in the region at the time was farm-salted mutton, and transport over the deep mud of the tracks was by sledge. But he was soon able to move as geography master to Nhill High School, although his stay was also short as he disagreed with the established teaching methods and applied for and in April 1927 was granted transfer to the Mines Department. He was appointed Assistant Field Geologist, working at first under the guidance of men of wide experience, notably R. A. Keble, J. P. L. Kenny and J. J. Caldwell in the Western District, Gippsland and Central Victoria until 1936 when he was promoted to Field Geologist. In this position he undertook regional mapping of a research nature carried out as the fundamental basis for the production of standard geological map sheets to be published in colour as part of the planned coverage of the State, and additionally made many underground surveys in mines, a practice in which he was highly skilled, as well as visiting regions for special surveys likely to be significant in relation to the geological structure and mineral deposits of Victoria. He always planned to reside close to his work and so had come to be familiar with much of the State from the Western District to Gippsland, and later central Victoria, especially around Lancefield, Romsey and Heathcote, moving to Castlemaine in 1937 where as senior field geologist he took charge of the Regional Office of the Mines Department from 1939 to September 1942.

It happened that the Palaeozoic rocks which Thomas mapped in the Victorian Highlands resemble in many ways those of his homeland, notably in their rich graptolite faunas with the general features of which he was already familiar when he arrived in Australia, so that he was quickly able to contribute important research findings using laboratory facilities set up in his home for palaeontology and petrology.

Losing no opportunity to familiarise himself with Victorian geology and fossil occurrences, he spent almost every summer vacation on long camping trips with geological colleagues who shared his enthusiasms - although few could compete with his skill as a trout fisherman - and who ventured with him into some of the most rugged and inaccessible mountain country in the State. But his constant companion on these reconnaissance expeditions was W. J. Harris, a secondary school teacher with the Education Department, who gained the degree of Doctor of Science in the University of Melbourne for his studies on the graptolites. Harris was able to transfer from Echuca to Castlemaine High School while Thomas was stationed there, and at this time their friendship became very close.

They collaborated in a most fruitful partnership elucidating important aspects of the structure, geological sequence and stratigraphical and palaeontological zonation of the Early and Middle Palaeozoic rocks of central Victoria, which, indeed, afford a succession the range and continuity of which is perhaps unrivalled in the world.

In 1940 Thomas, who was already recognised as a world authority on the graptolites, successfully applied for the Doctorate of Science in the University of Melbourne, his published works submitted in support of his candidature including not only scientific and technical papers, but also the geological map sheets, printed in colour, on which he had worked with such devotion and skill.

Within the Geological Survey of Victoria at that time, prospects of advancement were, however, slight, and Thomas, perhaps as much pour encourager les autres in Napoleonic style, as from any genuine desire to leave, had in 1939 applied for and been selected for appointment as Assistant Government Geologist of South Australia. At that time he was persuaded to stay in Victoria where so many of his interests lay, but later he applied for and accepted appointment as Chief Geologist with the government of Tasmania, where he took up his duties in October 1942.

There he was concerned mainly with the investigation of strategic mineral supplies of possible significance for the allied war effort, but was also able during his travels in the island to review the Early Palaeozoic succession. The presence of primitive Cambrian fossils such as also occur in Victoria, and which were at first regarded as hydroids but were later referred to the dendroid graptolites, was established. At that stage most other occurrences of graptolites in Tasmania were regarded as erroneous or doubtful, but it is of interest that Thomas was later to substantiate many new finds made by Tasmanian geologists.

In February 1944, doubtless influenced by many personal considerations, he returned to Victoria as Geologist with the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, his main responsibility being the mapping and geological evaluation for engineering purposes of the site of the enlarged Eildon Dam on the Goulburn River, where he was also able to continue to refine the stratigraphic subdivision of his beloved Palaeozoic rocks.

Having completed his specific task at Eildon where he had lived with his family for the duration of the assignment, Thomas transferred as Senior Field Geologist to the head office of the Mines Department in Melbourne in May 1945, and in February 1946 was appointed Chief Government Geologist in succession to W. Baragwanath. In this position, however, he often found himself at loggerheads with senior administrative staff who had been promoted from within the clerical side of the Public Service, and who might have direct Ministerial access which in general he himself was denied. He was not a man to suffer what he regarded as a situation derogatory to the position of the chief scientific officer of the Department either gladly or in silence, and it was largely due to his insistence that in 1960 the title and duties of Director of Geological Survey were reinstated. He was forthwith appointed Director, a position he held until his retirement in 1967.

As a scientific administrator his strength, in his own estimation, lay chiefly in the support he consistently gave to what he could regard as being genuine effort on the part of his staff. But it was soon recognised that he was also always prepared to take a strong and positive stand in situations where he believed matters of principle to be involved, even though his views might then run counter to those of established authority, and this inevitably led many to regard him as 'difficult'. With this appraisal he would have been happy to concur in circumstances when his convictions, loyalties or scientific rectitude might appear to have been called in question. He was insistent on the recognition by Commonwealth and State authorities and by industry, that under the Constitution the States retain sovereign rights over mineral deposits within their boundaries, and he regarded the permission often granted by State Government for Commonwealth geologists and geophysicists to undertake surveys in Victoria as inhibiting the proper activities and growth of the State Geological Survey. Indeed, during his service as Director, the geological staff of the Survey was increased in established strength from three to twenty, and a high level of professional attainment among appointees was maintained although a loose interpretation of Public Service regulations might in fact have permitted some relaxation of standards in this regard. He was also able to provide for certain members of the existing staff to undertake post-graduate university studies, and he had a fatherly, even at times paternalistic interest in the progress of his younger associates.

As may be gauged from the considerable number of publications of which he was joint author, he worked in fruitful collaboration with many colleagues throughout his career. In addition to his long association with W. J. Harris, his earlier mentor on Victorian graptolites and the local Palaeozoic succession had been R. A. Keble, who was a senior member of the Geological Survey when Thomas first joined, but later became Curator of Fossils at the National Museum of Victoria. The major review of the brown coal deposits of the State made with W. Baragwanath was certainly responsible for much subsequent interest in the development of basins lying outside the area in Gippsland controlled by the State Electricity Commission. Baragwanath had long been the scientific head of the Geological Survey as well as Secretary for Mines for a short period, and was one of those 'old fellows' whose dedication and skills Thomas often praised to the 'young fellows' who arrived as hopeful recruits to the profession.

Thomas was author, or in many instances joint author, of more than a hundred published works on a wide range of geological topics, but he himself would have ranked equally, if not higher, his geological mapping published in twelve coloured parish plans, the maps for the Eildon project, and many smaller detailed plans of mines and mineral deposits.

In 1954 he spent several months overseas, mainly to obtain information in North America, the United Kingdom and Europe which might have been relevant to new legislation to be introduced in Victoria as to the utilisation of underground water resources, and to study methods of exploration for uranium deposits. He was also able to visit several classic areas for graptolite-facies rocks, and to broaden his personal contacts with colleagues having similar research interests.

In 1963 he was granted leave to take a United Nations post in Cyprus, as Project Manager in respect of underground water and mineral resources developments but the two years he spent there coincided with a time of intense civil disturbance and he was unable to achieve significant results. During field trips he had military protection, but armed conflict extended even into the district where he and his wife were housed, so that his initial enthusiams for international aid were dimmed by the actualities of inter-racial strife, even in the island which gave its name to the metal he was engaged to seek to develop - copper.

Throughout his career, Thomas worked diligently in the cause of science and of geology in particular, through his active membership of and participation in the affairs of the societies and organisations appropriate to his scientific standing and professional status, which was one carrying considerable weight if only because of the small number of geologists working in Victoria during the early years of his service. He was a life member and for many years a councillor of the Royal Society of Victoria, and was a staunch supporter of the Geological Society of Australia, having been a founding member of the local geological club which, along with similar groups in the other State capitals, had formed one of the nuclei from which the Society evolved. He delivered the Clarke Memorial Lecture of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1959, on The Zonal Distribution of Australian Graptolites, and this still remains the major review of the topic despite some modifications now required mainly in respect of the younger forms. His Presidential Address to Section C (Geology) of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, delivered in Brisbane in 1951 was an important conspectus succinctly entitled Gold, illustrating the many types of lodes in Victoria and discussing their origins. In addition to his many papers describing other Victorian mineral occurrences, most of which he had been able to examine personally in his official capacity, he gave a general account of the mineral deposits of the State in relation to its geological history and structure, and reappraised our knowledge of the Bendigo and the Castlemaine-Chewton-Fryerstown Goldfields in the volume (Vol. I) on the Geology of Australian Ore Deposits published for the Fifth Empire Mining and Metallurgical Congress in 1953. In this volume Thomas also described the Blue Tier Tinfield, Tasmania, and additionally contributed a synoptic account of the geology of Victorian brown coals for the companion volume (Vol. VI) on Coal in Australia. The Congress was hosted by the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy of which Thomas was a Member. He served for several years on the State Committee of CSIR (later CSIRO), and was also a member of many governmental advisory and interdepartmental committees during his tenure as Chief Government Geologist and later as Director of the Geological Survey of Victoria.

David Evan Thomas was elected to Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science in 1963. His efforts towards the development of geology in his adopted land were emotive in relation to the earth, as well as strictly intellectual in relation to his science. The family into which he was born had been Welsh-speaking like most others in the Amman Valley, so that as a small child he had learned English virtually as a second language, and had grown up in close contact with miners and their families. He too then worked underground, and there can be little doubt that these influences in his formative years helped to determine the course of his later studies and career. His translation to Australia seems, in the circumstances obtaining at the time of his graduation, to have been fortunate in presenting him with opportunities which were unlikely to have come his way in Wales, and in placing him in a neo-Cambrian environment where his many-sided personality could freely develop in a modern colonial milieu. He was indeed, as one of his close associates has written, 'always a little larger than life', and his output of first class geological work was truly remarkable, as was the range of topics with which he treated.

In 1930 he married Mary (Maisie) Scanlon, whom he had met while surveying in the Romsey district. His wife predeceased him, and they are survived by their son John Roderick. In his later years protracted ill-health confined him more and more to his home, until his death on 26 November, 1978.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.5, no.2, 1981. It was written by Edwin Sherbon Hills CBE, FRS, a Foundation Fellow of the Academy and Emeritus Professor of Geology in the University of Melbourne. He served on Council between 1962 and 1964.


I am indebted to members of the Thomas family, as well as to his colleagues in the Victorian Department of Minerals and Energy (formerly Mines Department), for information and advice on many matters referred to in the memoir.

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