Dr Elizabeth Truswell, geologist

Dr Elizabeth Truswell. Interview sponsored by 100 Years of Australian Science (National Council for the Centenary of Federation).

Elizabeth Marchant Truswell was born in 1941 in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. During her undergraduate studies she discovered the field of palynology (the study of fossil and living pollen grains and plant spores), which allowed her to combine a love of botany with geology. After completing her BSc in 1962 at the University of Western Australia, she worked for a time as a consultant to Western Australian Petroleum.

Truswell received a British Commonwealth Scholarship in 1963 and went to Cambridge University, where she was awarded a PhD in 1966. On her return to Australia she again worked for Western Australian Petroleum (1969-1971).

In 1971-73 Truswell was a postdoctoral research scientist at Florida State University, USA, where she became interested in deep-sea drilling and how it relates to Antarctic floral history. In 1973 Truswell moved to Canberra to take up a position with the Bureau of Mineral Resources, now Geoscience Australia (GA). She remained with GA until 1996. Since leaving GA, Truswell has returned to an earlier interest in art and in particular to an exploration of the interaction between art and science. She has exhibited works at the Canberra School of Arts.

Interviewed by Professor Ken Campbell in 2000.


Early years

Elizabeth, you were born in Kalgoorlie and your father was a mine surveyor working underground and also on surface works. This seems to be an ideal background for somebody who is going to be a geologist.

That’s right, Ken. I spent my early years, until I was about seven, in Kalgoorlie, but I don’t think that I was aware of the rocks at that stage. I was very much aware of the hot local environment, but not the rocks as such.

Your father took you on walks through the bush, during which you enjoyed the native flora and fauna. Do you think any of this experience has stood with you during the later parts of your life, for example, in your regard for the environment?

I think that’s very much the case. After we moved from Kalgoorlie my father took a job working with Country Water Supplies in the southwest of Western Australia and I accompanied him often on school holidays, walking through the bush. I certainly became very aware of, and very keenly interested in, the flora and vegetation at that stage.

You did most of your primary and secondary schooling in Perth. Were you good at all your subjects or did you find that there were some that really outshone all the others?

I was reasonably good at most of my school subjects, but I was very interested in biology; we had a very inspiring biology teacher. I liked geography, I liked languages and art – we had a particularly good, if somewhat eccentric, art teacher. We did a lot of still life, a lot of flower painting and I did a lot of imaginative stuff as well.

Did you do some other work in art, in addition to the work that you did at school?

I took art classes, on weekends. Once I was at university I did weekend and some night art classes.

Do you think that your artistic and biological capacities go hand in hand, or do you think that there are some other attributes about science that attract you?

I think I’ve always had a capacity to see things in three dimensions, but more strongly I feel that I have very much a visual memory. I tend to remember things in terms of images and pictures. And I feel the same as far as geology’s concerned, if there’s a particular narrative quality about it. Geology is very much about telling stories and I think that that’s something that’s always appealed to me about the subject.

So it’s more or less history really.

Very much so, and I think this is something that translates into art very readily.

Your father was trained as a surveyor and your mother was a school teacher. Did they expect you to succeed academically?

I think they did. They both had had their own education curtailed because of the depression years. My father left school at 14 and finished his education at night school, at the School of Mines in Kalgoorlie, and my mother did short courses in teaching that were then available.

Did you plan to go to university after you had finished secondary school?

I think once I was in high school I assumed I was going to go to university. I think my parents assumed that too, although there was never any pressure to do so. But for a long time I felt that biology was where I was going to end up and university was part of that.

Back to top

University of Western Australia

Most geologists didn’t study geology at school, either because it wasn’t offered or because they wanted to do something else, but you took it up at university because of a good teacher, Basil Balme.

Geology wasn’t available at my high school. I took it up at university very much as a fill-in subject. When I started I did zoology, botany and chemistry and I needed another subject, and geology was an obvious choice. But once embarked on that I found that I did have some very inspiring teachers at the University of Western Australia. Basil Balme was very much an influence; he was a pioneer of palynology in Australia and he showed me that I could combine botany, which I particularly loved, with geology, and that there were opportunities in the combination of those two subjects.

I remember doing first year geology and it was ‘Learn this, this, this, this and this and you’ll be all right’. Did he have that kind of approach?

No, he didn’t have that approach at all, but that approach was certainly there. Our first experience of geology was to launch into crystallography and learn the crystal faces and formulae by rote, but Basil’s teaching in historical geology was very much based on his own experiences. He’d recently been working with the British Coal Board and he had a wealth of stories about the way in which palynology then was being used, and a lot of anecdotal and very humorous stories about working in the coal fields in Britain.

Most science students coming to university want to concentrate on some specific aspect, but you diversified your undergraduate work and took up anthropology.

I did anthropology from my second year at university and I was very fortunate in that at UWA there were some major figures in Australian anthropology. Ronald Berndt, who was a giant of Australian anthropology, and Peter Lawrence, who subsequently went on to head the Department of Anthropology in Sydney, were both very keen and enthusiastic teachers in their different ways. And what I gained from anthropology was quite an eye opener – I became aware that the culture that I’d grown up in was really just one of any number of cultures and there were as many ways of viewing the world as there were communities within it.

Back to top

Western Australian Petroleum

After completing your honours thesis in Carboniferous palynology you worked in the Canning Basin. This meant a lot to you because you felt that applied work was very important.

Having finished my honours degree and then having worked on a consultant basis for a local oil company, Western Australian Petroleum, I felt there was something almost magical in the sense that the knowledge that I had was readily and quickly applied. When the company was drilling, as it was very actively at that time, my ability to provide them with age determinations on the rocks that they were drilling through was essential to their day to day work. I think that was quite intoxicating for a very young graduate.

One of the most interesting parts of your experience confronted you now. You had to make a decision about whether you’d go on with science or go full time into painting – and you chose science. This must have been a pretty critical time in your life.

At that stage I was enjoying my consulting work for Western Australian Petroleum, but I was also painting. I thought that the only way I could decide whether I was going to stick with geology, or make a shift and go to art school full time, was to put in an application for a Commonwealth Scholarship to take me to England to go on with the palynology. And I felt that if that succeeded then that’d make the decision for me. If I failed to get the scholarship I would go to art school. I got the scholarship. The die was cast.

Back to top


You were in Cambridge from 1963 to 1966 and you began working on Cretaceous palynology. Where did you work in England?

Largely on the south coast, on the Isle of Wight and across into Dorset. The work had its applied side, in the sense that there was a need to document closely the pollen and spores of this particular time interval, which would increase its applications. However, it was also a very critical part of the geological record in that it documented the first appearance of the flowering plants and the first recognition we had that they were coming to be as important as they are. This particular part of the sequence contained that record.

The geology of the English Channel has been worked on for many, many years. Did you find the previous work that had gone on there very useful?

The sense of human history involved in the gathering of information was something that fascinated me. The sequences I collected on the Isle of Wight had been documented by one of the early geological pioneers – Gideon Algernon Mantell. Mantell’s portrait used to stare down at me from the staircase in the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge, where I had my office, and I was quite delighted that I could go down to the Isle of Wight, take his published sections, and still recognise almost bed for bed the sections that he’d described in the 1840s.

I think this brings up an important aspect of geology, that work well done stays well done and is useful forever after.

Yes, very much so. And I think it’s part of science, this sense that you are doing new work, but it’s very much building on work that’s already happened, and that you’re standing on the shoulders of the people who’ve gone before. That’s a wonderful feeling.

Living in Cambridge meant a great deal to you in ways other than academic.

My experiences in Cambridge were extremely rich and diverse. My supervisor, Norman Hughes, was an extremely interesting and kindly person who took me under his wing. And one couldn’t help but be interested in the environment – I lived in digs that faced across the river from a house that had been owned by members of the Darwin family. There was an enormously stimulating environment generally; music in Cambridge was something that I was extremely interested in and enjoyed. And the science that was going on – some of my PhD colleagues were studying sea floor spreading and the significance of the patterns of magnetic reversals on the sea floor – that was very exciting. Things were happening in biology – I heard Francis Crick lecture. I was interested in the theological debates that were going on, particularly within the Anglican Church. Oh, there was so much it was very hard not to be distracted from one’s own studies.

Back to top

Back to Australia

When you came back to Australia you worked with Western Australian Petroleum (WAPET) again. How did you adjust mentally to this change from a theoretical biological approach in Cambridge to a practical application to geological problems?

The experience of Cambridge is one that takes a while to get over and coming back to Perth I felt was back into a much more humdrum kind of existence generally. The work that I was doing with WAPET was very much applied. You would see extremely exciting things happening in the geological record in the spore and pollen assemblages that you were looking at on a day to day basis, but there simply wasn’t the opportunity to take it beyond the very minimal kind of information that the company needed. You tuck it away in the back of your mind and hope you’ll get an opportunity to come back to it later.

Back to top

Bureau of Mineral Resources

After a short time with WAPET you moved to Canberra, to the Bureau of Mineral Resources, now the Australian Geological Survey Organisation (AGSO), as a palynologist. You must have done a lot of other interesting things there besides palynology.

Yes, I did, but my role in AGSO was very much as a biostratigrapher. My official role was involved in developing an Australian time scale. From my point of view it was looking after the palynology that supported that time scale. But I did actually end up looking after the palaeontological group there, a very diverse group of people who contributed their own expertise in different fossil organisms. The development of an Australian time scale uses the evolution of life as one facet and relates it then to other forms of dating, such as radiometric dating and reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field. This was certainly the key element of the work that I was involved in there.

But whereas working with a company meant that I didn’t have the opportunity to develop the interesting biological aspects of the work that I was doing, I certainly did have the chance to do that with AGSO. The bushfire work, for example, came from a CSIRO organised conference on bushfires in Australia. The organiser of the conference asked for somebody who could comment on the record of fire in Australia and how far back in time we could identify bushfires as being a significant part of the Australian environment. So I was able to put together what I knew on that.

Biogeography was something else that happened as part of the information that was available to me. One could see a particular genus of plants that had become abundant in the Australian Tertiary, for instance, and know that there were very similar forms in Antarctica and in South America. Looking at things like the wider distribution of particular elements of the Australian flora was certainly a spin-off from the work I was doing.

During your latter phase of development in AGSO you were put in charge of the Environmental Section. What do you think the geological contributions to environmental studies are at the present time?

The Environmental Section in AGSO was set up to explore the ways in which a national geological survey might contribute to understanding and management of some of the key environmental problems in Australia. One of the obvious ones is the relationship of geology to soils. There’s a lot of rethinking going on now about how people regard Australian soils, very much a shift away from a taxonomic descriptive approach to soil science to one that understands soil processes and the way those soil processes can be translated into a landscape scale. Obviously an understanding of the bedrock geology is something that is very crucial to this whole process of understanding soils.

There’s a marvellous direct relationship between bedrock geology and geomorphology, or the development of landscape, and the growth and fertility of Australian forests. When we were setting up this group we had discussions with the New South Wales Department of Forestry. We discovered that they had been trying to use geological maps in their attempts to understand the way in which forests grew, and they were having great difficulty in finding geological maps that were at the scales that they needed for their own work. But the relationship that they described to us was a fairly direct one. They found that the bedrock geology contributed very clearly to the growth of forests. The direct nutrient supply to those forests and the way in which those nutrients were made available depended very much on things like slopes, on the rapidity or otherwise of erosion, the accumulation of sediments derived from those slopes and from the bedrock geology under the slopes. They were able to show us figures that clearly show this relationship between bedrock, geomorphology and forest growth.

So that was just one area. The other was the contribution of geology to understanding coastal issues – sedimentation in estuaries, the way sediment is related to pollutants, the way sediment is related to nutrient supply in the offshore and in estuaries and to issues like coastal erosion. There’s a very clear need for geological input in understanding processes on our coasts.

Back to top

CRC on Coastal Zone Estuaries and Waterways

This leads us to the Cooperative Research Centre on Coastal Zone Estuaries and Waterways, of which you’re a board member. This work is very interesting because it applies science to immediate problems that people are facing, not only in Australia but also in the islands of the south Pacific and southern Asia. You must find that exciting.

Yes, I do indeed. This is a new CRC; it was only set up in 1999 and so it’s been going for just over a year. At the moment it’s Queensland based, but the intention is that it will become national as it develops. Its interests are in looking at a wide range of problems that relate to the Australian coastal zone, such as pollution within estuaries. It has recently been involved in an audit of Australian estuaries, classifying them in terms of how pristine or otherwise they are. It is interested in pollution in urban areas; it has had quite a considerable involvement with pollution problems in southeast Queensland. One of the partners in the CRC is the Brisbane City Council; they’ve been looking at issues of pollution in Moreton Bay, of turbidity in the Brisbane River; they are moving on to Port Curtis to looking at problems of heavy industry located in those areas.

One of the CRC’s themes is called citizen science and it focuses on how communities can best become involved, how they can become aware of the problems, how they can have input into the kind of science that is needed to solve the problems and the way in which that science can become part of policy making at the local level. It is at the local level in Australia that these problems are managed.

And it is also interested in problems in the South Pacific islands, flooding in Bangladesh, the rising sea level, and so on. These are issues that are outside Australia but nevertheless of great interest to Australian science.

That’s right. Unesco has very strong interests in those areas too. Unesco has programs operating in the Pacific that look at those problems specifically – issues like how the limited pockets of groundwater in the Pacific islands will be influenced by sea level. Will they change as sea levels rise?

Back to top

Evolution of Australian forests

When did eucalypt forests arrive in Australia, and how long did they take to spread?

Eucalyptus pollen is rather difficult to distinguish from pollen of the rest of the large Myrtaceae family to which it belongs, a lot of which are tropical rainforest groups, so the fossil record is hard to read. As far as we can tell, eucalyptus pollen has been around since the Oligocene interval in the Tertiary, which is some 30 to 40 million years old. But it was a relatively minor component of the vegetation until very recently, maybe as recently as the Pleistocene. So the last 2 million years was the time when the eucalypts came to dominate the Australian vegetation and the reasons for it have been much debated. We know that they are very resistant to fire and it’s possible that once man had arrived here and was using fire then this was a great encouragement to the eucalypts. Their spread is certainly a recent one, geologically, so they’re a new phenomenon in the Australian environment.

The rapid shifts in climate through the Pleistocene are well documented and we are beginning to get national pictures of fairly fine time intervals in the Pleistocene. Apart from the pollen record, we can document the charcoal record. The record of fires shows up in the sediments as increases or decreases in the amount of charcoal particles that are present. There’s a very interesting record in Lake George, close to Canberra, where the record of fire and of vegetation is reasonably well understood. We see at round about 120,000 years ago increases in fire, these have been used to suggest very early human occupation. I don’t think that that old data is very widely accepted, but certainly the record of fire, the record of vegetation shifts in response to climate, is reasonably well known.

Back to top

Antarctic work

One of the most interesting parts of your work has been to do with the material that has come off Antarctica and been preserved in the sea. When did you become interested in deep sea drilling?

My introduction to the deep sea drilling project came during a postdoctoral fellowship I had to the US. I was at Florida State University and they were heavily involved; they are in fact a repository for storage of some of the cores from the Ocean Drilling Program, or the Deep Sea Drilling Program as it was then. While I was there I became very interested in that program and I had the chance to go on one of their first cruises to Antarctica.

I was interested in the sea floor spreading history between Australia and Antarctica – particularly the way the modern marine environments around Antarctica had developed. South of the Antarctic Convergence, where there is a dramatic temperature change in the surface waters, the predominant biota is siliceous (silica forming organisms, diatoms, radiolarians); north of the Convergence we meet the calcareous organisms. And that boundary is easy to determine in the sedimentary record – I first became aware of it on the cruise to Antarctica. As we drilled holes I pinned up around my cabin the logs showing the distribution of these siliceous and calcareous organisms, and it became very apparent that this boundary was moving rapidly northwards through time as the climates changed.

The cold waters generated around Antarctica sink to the bottom and then they move northwards, right through to the north Atlantic. These are one of the major drivers of the ocean currents and of the distribution of heat on a global basis. This generation of Antarctic bottom water is an area that is even now not well understood and is the subject of much of the work of the Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre in Hobart.

By drilling holes in the sea floor you’ve been able to infer something about Antarctic floral history.

Almost any recent mud that one dredges up around Antarctica will contain pollen of a variety of ages. A lot of it is pollen of the more recent part of the Antarctic vegetation, of the Tertiary, pollen that’s very similar to much of the Australian Tertiary records. The record of the Antarctic muds is both intriguing and very frustrating. It gives us a kind of catalogue of the plants that once grew on Antarctica, but because the glacial action has been so strong, pollens of different ages tend to be mixed up together as the sediments have been churned up by the advance and retreat of ice shelves, so it’s very hard. While we now have quite a good record of what grew on Antarctica we have a much less clear understanding of when it grew there.

We do have a couple of sections where borehole information is better than average. A very recent cruise of the Ocean Drilling Program off Prydz Bay, east Antarctica, has given us a good section where we have a feel for the most recent Antarctic vegetation. The vegetation there was probably a fairly stunted version of much of the cool temperate Tasmanian vegetation, dominated by the southern beeches and some of the southern conifers, with a minor component of ferns and a few very interesting things like the sundews, the carnivorous plants that are very widespread in Australia. We know that they were there as part of that Antarctic vegetation.

At what time was this?

This is the Eocene period, so you’re looking at 40, 45 million years ago. It’s very hard from the information we have to know exactly when that vegetation was wiped out by increasing cold and by the growth of the ice cap. Our guess now is that it probably didn’t persist much beyond that. It may have persisted locally into the more recent period, the Oligocene, possibly even the Miocene, but we’re looking at an elimination of it probably around 20 million years ago, although there are some very controversial much younger beds there too.

But the other way we’ve been able to use the distribution of pollen around Antarctica is to pinpoint the rocks underneath the ice that might be the source of that pollen. And we were able to do this on one occasion where we had a good coverage of samples right across the Ross Sea. We were able to chart the percentages of pollen in those samples and find out that it was concentrated in a couple of great tongues on the eastern edge of the Ross Sea. Working with glaciologists from Cambridge, particularly David Drewry, we were able to pinpoint from those high pollen densities particular ice streams that were feeding down through the Ross Ice Shelf. We could look at the source of those ice streams and say ‘Well, somewhere here under the ice shelf we have Cretaceous and Tertiary beds that are being eroded.’

And they’ve been finding these Cretaceous plant fossils, stems, trees, in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, I understand.

That’s right. There are a couple of places. We’ve got a good record of Cretaceous woods in the Antarctic Peninsula area, where the trees grew at very high latitudes. There is in fact a fossil forest preserved at a locality called Alexander Island on the Antarctic Peninsula where Tim Jefferson, who was then a PhD student at Cambridge, was able to document the spacing of trees at these high latitudes. He was able to suggest that quite large trees flourished at these latitudes, but they could only flourish if they were widely enough spaced so that they didn’t shade each other out at the very acute inclination of the sun’s rays at those high latitudes.

And the other, the Trans-Antarctic Mountains occurrence that you mentioned, is an extremely controversial series of beds that now occur very high in the mountains. These contain accumulations of fossil leaves very close to one of the Tasmanian beeches – these are deciduous beeches. There are beds there in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains that contain what look like autumn leaf deposits of this particular beech. They are associated with woods that look like twigs at first glance but further study of them has shown that they are not twigs, but tree trunks. So these were knee high beech forests. There is a huge amount of controversy surrounding the age of these forests, but the first estimate was that they are as young as roughly 2 million years. Almost certainly they were the last remnants of the Antarctic vegetation.

Back to top

International connections

Having left AGSO you didn’t seek other geological employment, but you did maintain contact with various international bodies, such as Unesco, that were concerned with global problems.

While I didn’t seek other geological employment I’ve always been very reluctant to give up geology and I have maintained some research. Unesco has a number of science programs and it has for the last 25 years been running a very successful Earth science program, the International Geological Correlation Program, which provides small amounts of money for projects that deal with geology on a global basis. It provides enough money for people to maintain contact and to run projects, particularly with links to developing countries. Those projects cover the whole field of geology, from mineral exploration through to environmental problems. There’s been a particular focus in the last few years on problems related to water, so there’s been a strong encouragement for people to set up hydrogeological projects under this IGCP heading. Australia has had a very strong input to that program, right from its inception in the early 1970s. For a long time BMR, or AGSO, has provided funds for Australian scientists, so I began my involvement as part of an Australian committee that has overseen the funding from this end. Then I moved to the Paris-based Unesco board which was responsible for overseeing the program on a world basis.

Back to top

Later career as an artist

Tell us about your work at the Canberra School of Art. I understand that you think art and science are interrelated in a specific way.

Well, art and science have been very closely linked right through their history. The divisions between them are fairly recent. If you look back to people like Leonardo da Vinci, there you had an artist who was really pushing back the boundaries of science. His interest in anatomy and mechanical phenomena was very scientific. After the Renaissance was a time when artists began to serve the interests of science. If you think of the early voyages of exploration to the Pacific, to Australia, artists were then employed directly by scientists and were responsible to them for documenting the wonders of the New World. It’s a very interesting study to look at the kind of tensions some of these early artists experienced between serving their scientific masters or serving the navigators. For instance on Cook’s major voyage, when he circumnavigated Antarctica at high latitudes, the young artist William Hodges was responsible directly to Cook, who was encouraging him to produce paintings that served the cause of navigation, to produce coastal profiles. However, the artists on Cook’s earlier voyage were responsible not to him but to Joseph Banks, so there was perhaps more of an emphasis there on the natural history records that they were documenting. So this interaction between art and science has a very long history and a very interesting one and I’m particularly keen to explore that further.

I also find that in the practice of art, now becoming more of a practising artist myself, there’s a huge similarity between the processes of working in art and science. One accumulates a great amount of information before generating a painting or a scientific paper and the processes are fairly similar. There’s the accumulation of information, the phase of wondering where it’s going, then some kind of revelation, of seeing what that information can be translated into, and all of it, I think, is a response to the natural world. It is using different languages, but it is fulfilling that same need to respond to nature in one way or another.

Could you tell us a little bit about the translation from a scientific observation of the world to an artistic world?

I feel that becoming an artist later in life I have a great deal of experience to draw on, which makes it much easier to take up art on a full time, serious basis. Over the last year I’ve been involved in a struggle to produce a series of paintings that really do reflect something of the understanding that I have as a scientist of landscapes of the past. I guess the unique view that geology brings to an understanding of the world is an acute awareness of change, the fact that landscape is something that is changing very rapidly. I’ve been trying to develop paintings that show old landscapes underlying modern ones, that landscape is something of many layers and that underneath the present landscape is always the imprint of an earlier landscape.

I’ve tried to attack this problem in a number of ways. One of them has been a fairly straightforward set of drawings that is my understanding of what the ancient Antarctic forests might have looked like. I’ve actually drawn those on top of photocopies and collages of some of my own scientific papers, so there’s that sense of a scientific understanding of landscape interfacing with the landscape itself. In other paintings I’ve had to try to find some metaphor for this changing landscape and in that case I’ve actually drawn on the Antarctic fossil woods. I have made paintings that had their origin in the tree rings, because here is a metaphor for change, for time, for landscape, plus a lot of visual interest that one develops through those paintings.

From your love of the native flora as a child, the history of the Australian flora, application of studies to petroleum environments, environmental studies, studies of the history of Antarctic floras based on material from deep sea cores, to the representation of living forms in various artistic ways, you’ve had a very full and interesting life, Elizabeth. Thank you.

Back to top

© 2024 Australian Academy of Science