Dorothy Hill was born in 1907 in Taringa, Brisbane. Hill received a scholarship to the University of Queensland and between 1925 and 1929 she completed a three year Bachelor of Science (geology) with first class honours and was the first woman awarded a gold medal for most outstanding graduate of the year. In 1930 Hill received a Foundation Travelling Scholarship which she used to study for a PhD from the University of Cambridge in the UK, researching the Carboniferous corals of Scotland held at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. When she completed her PhD in 1932, Hill was the first female graduate from the University of Queensland to receive a PhD from the University of Cambridge. After her PhD, Hill received an Old Students’ Research Fellowship of Newnham College in Cambridge, where she lived for three years. In 1934 she won the Daniel Pidgeon Fund from the Geological Society of London. In 1936 she received an 1851 Senior Scholarship. Using this, Hill remained as a researcher at the University of Cambridge for a further two years. Hill returned to Australia in 1938 and took a position as a research fellow at CSIR (now CSIRO) until 1943. During this period she was also a lecturer at the University of Queensland. In 1943 Hill began working for the war effort under the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service as an operations staff officer, while continuing to research at the University of Queensland in her spare time. From 1945 she served on the Demobilisation Planning Committee, being the representative of the Women’s Services. Over the next 25 years she worked at the University of Queensland while performing other roles concurrently. In 1956 she was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, and became President in 1970.
More information about Professor Hill is available at Biographical memoirs—Dorothy Hill, 1907-1997.
Interviewed by Dr John R. Cole (toward a history of the University of Queensland)
10 September 1981
Getting to university and discovering geology
You were born in 1907, in Brisbane.
Yes. I was born in Taringa.
And where did you go to school?
Coorparoo State School (primary school) and the Brisbane Girls' Grammar School.
Was there an example in the family to follow in going to university?
No. My family was like 99 per cent of other Brisbane families in having no university precursors – because we used not to have a university here, and the only reason people went south to university was to become doctors. We were certainly not in that line.
By 1925, however, when I went to the University of Queensland, you could get one of 20 scholarships each year, and I had one of those. Otherwise I would not have been able to come to the university: my father and mother were not in very affluent circumstances, and I was only one of a family of seven – and a girl – and wasn't all that important! [laugh] My mother was always very keen that each one of us should have the best possible done for us. My father was rather Victorian and thought it was his responsibility to see that all his womenfolk were cared for. He had no view that women should support themselves, really; he thought it was his job to support us.
Did the scholarship support you, take care of you?
Oh, pretty well. It paid my fees – two guineas a subject, about $4.20 in today's terms – and it gave me 20 pounds [£20] a year, or something princely like that for those days.
With that £20 you'd live rather modestly, wouldn't you?
Yes. Well, we all lived very modestly. Tram fares were, I think, threepence [3d] – about 3c in today's currency – and it only cost me 6c a day to go in and out to the university, so transport was no very great expense.
Were there canteen facilities at the university at that stage?
No. We had a 'lunch-bringing tea-drinking association' in the women's common room, and we just contributed X pence per week to tea, sugar and milk supplies. As we came back from lectures we made a cup of tea and we sat around (sometimes at a table) and had a little conversation, and then went off to the next lecture.
When you came to the university, did you know what you were going to do with your life? Did you want to be a geologist?
I did know what I wanted to do: I wanted to be a scientist. I couldn't be a medical doctor – I didn't even bother to ask my family whether they could support me, because I knew they couldn't. By that time, to become a doctor I would have done one year in Queensland and then my family would have had to send me down to Sydney. So I said, 'Well, I'll become a chemist,' because we had done chemistry at the Girls' Grammar School. We had also done maths (but no physics) and biology, so because I felt I knew about biology I took geology as my extra subject at university. And having taken that just as an extra subject, I discovered chemistry to be vitally uninteresting compared with geology.
That wasn't the fault of Bertram Dillon Steele's chemistry teaching, was it?
That wasn't Bertram's fault, because I greatly admired him. It was simply H C Richards' presentation of the subject, and the subject itself – it has great intrinsic interest to one who likes to weigh the imponderable and look at things in an historical light. Geology manages to combine both of those. And you can't measure anything, it's not measurable, whereas maths and chemistry are very largely measurement, which I find very boring.
Was geology more popular than other subjects because one went on excursions to various scenic spots?
It was popular with some of the women. A few of the women went to the university – as you would expect and as I suppose they still do – for what you might talk about as social manners, to discover how to get on with the other sex, and I think it was a very good hunting ground for suitable marriages.
Well, I wasn't interested in that aspect at that time, and that didn't enter into my considerations. Intending to be a chemist, I simply took geology as a one-year fill-in subject because I didn't know anything about it and I had done biology. I was going to broaden my education.
Leaders in the Geology Department
You spoke of H C Richards. What would you say was the most memorable thing about him?
He was a man of complete integrity. (I've never appreciated anybody who hadn't complete integrity, I might tell you now! I cannot even accept them as friends, really.) He was vital and had quite a sense of humour; he was human but nevertheless adult and able to lead – all those things which you wanted in a man in a senior position.
That would have been more important at that stage of the university's development, given that there were only four professors.
It was very important. It still is important now, and it is regrettable that so few professors have what I consider to be the right attitude [laugh] – which is rather parochial of me, I guess.
No, I tend to agree with you. There seems to have been at that time a greater sense of responsibility and also of authority among professors and senior staff. Steele, I think, was another one that acted with responsibility.
He did indeed. Those two men respected one another and worked together very well. Steele always understood Richards' point of view, and I am quite sure that Richards would get his own way with Steele simply because the two men were two of a kind.
Richards had come up from Melbourne, and Steele was from England. Steele was an Olympian character – I understand that he'd had a very good record in explosives and munitions in England during the war. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, which was and still is no mean thing. Everybody felt a little reflected glory coming back from him, because of his achievement.
Do you think he was too large for Queensland? He probably could have gone anywhere else.
No, he was a model, you see, and he'd chosen to come to Queensland. This was the thing he'd undertaken for his life's work.
I suppose there is something immensely satisfying about beginning a university and establishing various faculties.
I imagine so. It is a sense of achievement, particularly when you build a thing up from the start and it turns into something before your eyes.
Do you think those men would be happy, if they came back today, to see what had happened?
Yes, on the whole.
What do you remember about W H Bryan as a member of the Geology staff?
He was another man whom one could have a great admiration for. He too was dedicated. He saw his life's work as the department, and he tried to do his very best for it and for his students. He wasn't as vigorous as Richards, however, in pressing for more staff, that sort of thing – Richards I think always had his foot on the accelerator.
Bryan went on to be the first Doctor of Science at the university to have come up through the students. There were, of course, honorary Doctors of Science awarded at the first graduation ceremony, but he was the first graduate of this university to receive a Doctor of Science.
More staff examples of dedication and humanity
What other people in the university staff of the mid-1920s would stand out as major characters?
I think Priestley and Michie – Priestley as a mathematician but also as an extremely humane character, very interested in the students. For example, I was never really interested in maths and did a second year only because I had to, it was compulsory. After the maths examination I thought I'd failed, yet when the results came out I had got 60 per cent! I thought this was extraordinary, and everybody must have been marked very easily. So I went along to Priestley and said, 'Goodness me, I thought I'd failed.' He showed what I thought was his humanity by saying, 'Oh no, you did very well in two or three questions, you know, and I was able to take account of that.' I still think I was very lightly treated, even now [laugh].
What about Michie? Being in the sciences, perhaps you didn't meet him so much.
Both Michie and Priestley were very interested in sport, and although we didn't have inter-university women's athletics we used to have an annual meet at which women competed against one another. (There were men's events going on at the same time.) Priestley and Michie were always down acting as referees and starters and things like that, so you got to know them quite well. They were quite matey. Also, Priestley was very interested in hockey and he acted as sort of patron of the women's hockey club. He used to come down and support us at interstate or intervarsity matches.
Was there much in the way of intervarsity sport at that time?
All I can recollect for the women was hockey and tennis. I don't know, there might have been swimming. We didn't have athletics.
Were the terms synchronised with the southern universities?
Yes, more or less, and we went down in university vacations. The interstate matches were not synchronised, however, and because I played hockey for Queensland for several years I always had to go and get permission from Richards to be absent from my courses. He was a bit sticky at one time, thinking I ought not to go because it would upset some course I was doing, but Freda Bage weighed in. She was the patroness of the Queensland Women's Hockey Association and possibly also of the University of Queensland Women's Association. When I told her I didn't think I was going to be able to go because it was going to be disadvantageous to my course, she said, 'Oh, I'll go and see what I can do.' She went along and saw Richards, and came back all smiling all over her face: 'That's all right, you can go.' [laugh]
Freda Bage was principal of Women's College, wasn't she?
Yes. I liked her very much. She was another person who saw her job as the prime interest in her life. She didn't just do it to get any money out of it; she did it because she wanted to.
She was the first woman lecturer, lecturing in biology before she became the head of the Women's College. And then, I think as head of the Women's College, she became the first woman elected to the University Senate. So she really was quite a character. She was one of those notable people whom you couldn't help respecting because they had a life's work and they intended to pursue it. She had drive, and also great humanity and kindness, and she did everything she could for everybody. All her students got the best possible deal from her.
I suppose quite a number of old Women's girls would affectionately remember her.
Oh, surely. I actually lived in Women's College for a short time. My family were away somewhere and I thought that I'd take the opportunity to live in instead of fending for myself at home and rattling round in an empty house [laugh], and I enjoyed it very much. The college life was quite a sociable and pleasant thing for me.
Do you think the university was more a closed society in those days, a world of its own, more aloof from ordinary society than it is today?
I don't think so. We certainly formed a world of our own, but people do that today, too. I think our place in the public eye was much the same as it is today – no great difference there.
Lectures and geology excursions in the 1920s
Let's look at the life of a student at that time. What time did lectures begin?
At 9 o'clock. I went in to the university every day for my science lectures. The mornings were pretty full, and the afternoons had prac classes on them. In fact, at one stage the prac classes were so numerous that they cut into our sports half, and that meant that you got one of the men who weren't interested in sport to look after your experiments for you – which they did very kindly [laugh]. (Wednesday afternoon was the sports half, you see, but Chemistry used to like to put on its lab periods at that time.)
In such a small institution I suppose students would have had a more balanced life at the university than perhaps they do today. Sport and things like that were social activities, to start with.
Oh yes. I don't know why, but I had the idea that when you went to the university you did everything. It was a chance to see what everybody else did – girls and boys. In those days, the girls went to separate schools and really didn't see terribly much of the boys, so it was all very interesting to go to a university where you shared classes with the boys.
You have already mentioned that some women might have gone to university for an education in social manners. I suppose this would have been the first opportunity, for both men and women, to enjoy mixing in adult society and in a society that was no longer segregated along by sex.
Well, mostly I had lived at home with two brothers and four sisters, so that I did know a good deal about boys. I boarded at the Grammar School for some time while my parents were away, and then I stayed on after they came back. Because of the large family, Mother found it a bit difficult running everything at home. So two of us boarded at the school and went home at the weekends.
Were you the oldest, or youngest, in the family?
No, I was the third. I came conveniently, without responsibility, in the middle [laugh].
We have mentioned the geology excursions. I remember reading that one of the first was to Spicers Gap. You would have seen a fair bit of south-east Queensland, I imagine, in your research and as a student. Was such an excursion quite a festive social occasion, or a serious research effort?
It was both, really. If you actually wanted to be a geologist and didn't just go to the university for the social life, the staff were able to see how you set about being a field worker in terribly primitive circumstances where you had to walk. You only used cars in order to get there, and after that you had to do your work on foot or by horse. I used a horse when I was working up in the Brisbane Valley – we were brought up with horses, you see.
The general feeling in a camp was a complex one, because you were keen to see the geology, you were also keen to enjoy being out in the open air and seeing the staff under different conditions – and seeing how you got on in the field, actually. And, of course, if you had the chance you played some sort of game. People were full of high spirits and they would see how far they could throw the geological hammer [laugh] and that sort of thing.
The excursion two years before I went to the university had gone up to Warwick, where it was so cold that there was a frost on the ground, ice all over the place, and they played ice hockey in the mornings! So when I went up to Warwick I was hoping that that was going to happen, but instead of that I went down with flu there.
Who were the staff that took these excursions?
Richards always went, and Bryan always went, in those early days. It was only later on that the professors didn't go and other people did it.
These being mixed excursions, I suppose chaperones were in attendance.
Oh yes, they were terribly conventional. Mrs Richards acted as chaperone always on those large excursions; she and Mrs Bryan generally went together.
What other facilities besides the common room were provided for the students at that time? Were there adequate sporting facilities, for example?
A men's sports union and a women's sports union arranged all the matches and raised money for the trips abroad, to southern States. As to facilities, there were a couple of tennis courts which were used, I think, by staff and also by students, but most of the tennis was played on private courts – at houses of parents – and at the colleges. The men's colleges all had tennis courts, and they invited tennis parties at the weekends. Many weekends were spent in that way, playing tennis.
Hockey we had to play on the Domain, which was all that was left of the Government House Domain after the university and the Government Botanist had encroached upon it. That never had any care taken of it. The potholes were not filled in, and the ball just wouldn't run true but sort of bounded from tussock to tussock. So Queenslanders were never very good at stick work, because they had to catch the ball in the air instead of on the ground. Nevertheless, we didn't worry about that, because playing was good.
The men had rowing sheds and that sort of thing. I suppose that those were also provided by the clubs through their own efforts to raise money.
Did you ever row, as a student?
We only rowed in the Regatta, and then we rowed in fours and we also coxed for the men. The fours were women's fours, and I certainly rowed in a few of those. I enjoyed that, but often the boat was a little bit unbalanced because I'd be quite light [laugh] and the next woman would be a large woman with a lot of weight.
The university didn't encourage sporting events on Sundays, did it?
No. Nobody encouraged sporting events on Sundays in those days. Sunday was a Victorian Sunday in Brisbane.
I remember reading in the Senate minutes of about 1952 that there was much consternation: an athletics meet had been held on a Sunday and people who supported the Sabbath were writing letters to the Senate. They took it very seriously, even as late as that, which I was quite surprised to see.
It was just taken for granted that you didn't do anything like that on a Sunday. You did it all on the Saturday.
You'd probably study on Sunday?
I think it was a family visiting day, and as far as I can recall various relatives came to visit my family at home.
Examinations and holiday employment
Do you think your examinations were harder in those days? I suppose that because you had a term system and sat for the finals at the end of the year, there was a lot of stress at that time of year.
Yes, because all the other attractions meant that you kept on putting off doing any work in the subjects you were taking until the very end. The last term was a terrible term; you suddenly had to do the year's work in one term, which was no mean feat. I can remember working so hard that I couldn't sleep for the last two or three nights before the examinations – I was sitting up too late and my brain wouldn't stop! [laugh]
Were the flowering jacarandas a symbol even then that the exams were getting close?
Oh Lord, yes, a symbol of what I recollect now as absolute tiredness from making your maximum output. Sports, social life, everything went for those few weeks before the examinations. I made it a point to go through every lecture and be sure that I understood every lecture in every subject before I went into the examination, and that took quite a lot of doing in the third term.
What did students do during their long holiday period at the end of the year? Did a lot of them seek work?
Well, I worked in the State Government Insurance Office one year. I can't remember what I did the other years – probably got bored [laugh].
In families like mine there was certainly an incentive to make a little money. I didn't like to be taking all the time and not giving anything, and it seemed to be a good idea to get a job – which I did, and quite enjoyed it. One of my fellow geology students, Greta Ferguson, and I went in to the State Government Insurance Office.
Did organisations like the government make provision for student employment at the time?
No. In this case, my father and the State Government Commissioner of the time, John Watson, lived opposite one another and were great friends, and Greta Ferguson's father also knew someone in the Public Service, so when Greta knew that I was going to go in she said, 'I'll see if Dad can get me in,' and he did. Fathers did help when they saw you really wanted to get work; they weren't Victorian to the extent of saying no, you might not [laugh].
Society today sometimes perceives students as slightly indulged. What was the attitude to them at that time?
I think people were slightly more affectionate towards them, because the university was fairly new. It was something which Queensland had to build up and therefore it had people's support toward being able to stand on its own feet and be recognised. The students had a little bit of reflection from that. They were indeed thought to be lucky but they weren't thought to be awful or anything like that. They were helped where people could help them.
Do you think the university had a little bit more prestige in those days, as something new, a much smaller institution than presently – 19,000 students now, from a wide cross-section of society – and a place whose professors enjoyed a fairly eminent status in the community?
I very much doubt whether the community thought any differently of the university then. I think most Queenslanders are proud of their university – whatever they say. They're glad it's there and they support it, and they would say, 'Oh yes, it has a good record. Look what it's doing.' I think they did that then. Every time there was a new faculty opened, you could almost sense the community's pleasure.
Fun and fervour in student activities
As an undergraduate you would have attended a few graduation ceremonies, the culmination of Commemoration Week. What do you remember about them?
Oh, they were good fun. The Senate was quite indulgent and didn't complain very loudly about what the students did, and so the students sang songs – more or less rude – about them and enjoyed themselves one way and another. The faculty songs were written by the students to suit the appropriate occasion, and we'd have practised them assiduously one night every week practically since the beginning of term.
The ceremony got a little bit to be vandalised later on when some people didn't have quite the right sense of humour.
I suppose a number of wits, social satirists, came to light at that time.
That's right. Rhys Jones I remember in my time was the great wit for student songs. He could put his finger on the issues, but kindly. Indeed, he was a very kind man and what he said didn't have too many barbs in it. But still you could recognise what he was getting at. (His sister Miriam Jones was a lecturer in classics here for a while.)
Would the magazine in which the students published have been like Semper Floreat, for example, with a mixture of politics and satire?
The magazine was Galmahra. Fred Paterson, Jack Lindsay and some of the others were interested in what you might call radical politics, and Galmahra did have articles by them – and of a high standard of English. But it didn't have muck in it. It was an adult sort of magazine.
Fred Paterson had been to Cambridge as a Rhodes Scholar. What was he doing back here at the time?
I don't remember him myself. He and Jack Lindsay were before me, and they and I did not actually coincide at the university. Nevertheless, their radical views were still talked about.
Were students interested in politics as a serious concern, or were you quite prepared to leave it to people beyond the university?
Political matters were certainly a serious concern, but I think most students accepted the family view of politics at that time, apart from those who would have been radicals in any society and in any circumstances [laugh]. Of course you'd always get those.
That was just about the time when Cambridge and Oxford were being riddled with Red cells, and we did have a visit from an overseas woman who was cruising around getting enlistments to the cause. She had some contacts, I think, who must have told her those people who were idealistic and likely to be swayed.
Do any particular students of your own era come to mind?
I remember Len Fisher, who is one of the Alumni presidents. He was an engineer who was in a senior year to me, and was a rowing man. I remember the footballers quite well. There were quite a lot of them – Ossie Fenwick and Johnny Lavery, and Jack Hulbert, particularly; Ken Paterson, I think, from the Toowoomba school.
Was it necessary to play sport to survive in the university?
Oh no. But I played as much as I could, because I've always enjoyed it and it was another thing to do at the university. It was all good fun.
But there would have been the shy, retiring types there too, who don't readily come to mind.
That's right. There were various people who became legal people and judges afterwards. The girls I remember there were very largely girls I'd known at school, either at Brisbane Grammar or at Somerville House. I met also lots of girls from other schools, and that was all very interesting. And the girls at Women's College came from all round Queensland, so from that point of view you got to know quite a lot about Queensland through the friends you made in the common room.
What was the social life like at night? Did you have regular dances, for example?
Oh, yes. In the first part of the year, Commem practices sometimes had a little dance at the end. But there was nearly always a Saturday night dance to raise money for something or other, and you paid three and threepence [3/3] a ticket.
Three shillings and threepence each would probably be quite a bit of money.
Yes. When you look back at it now, it's only 33c, but in those days it was quite a lot of money for us. The men didn't buy two tickets and invite a woman; the woman bought her own and went along. And then the dances all closed off at midnight, because that was the start of Sunday morning. The band played 'God Save the King' promptly at 12 o'clock.
From a woman's point of view, was behaviour more restricted in those days? Could the ladies who went along to a dance drink with the men, and smoke in public and things like that?
Well, there was no drinking at the dances. You didn't drink wine – or I suppose the odd person would take hip flask along, but I never met such a person.
Was there such a thing as a Regatta Hotel, or the Royal Exchange Hotel that we have today, as student hotels? If so, was it frowned upon for female students to be seen at the pub?
There was a pub at the corner opposite the Queensland Club, relatively close to the university. But I don't think any of the women students would have wanted to go into the pub. It had quite a different atmosphere then. It was rather a low place, where people were probably sick all over the place [laugh], and it didn't appeal to anybody.
At the dances I suppose there would sometimes have been extravagant social behaviour. Do you remember some funny incidents?
No, the only thing I can remember of a dance that was at all funny – it wasn't funny at the time! – is that Ferguson Wood, who was a science student when I was there and later became a professor in the Philippines or somewhere, was driving me along George Street in his little 'baby Austin'. I was wearing my ball get-up, which of course included a long skirt and, in those days, a very beautiful silk scarf. All the girls had scarves and things – shawls, really. Mine was a very handsome affair. Unfortunately, though, the end of the shawl got caught on the propeller shaft. The shawl got ripped off me, wound round the propeller shaft, and came up all over oil. I wasn't very pleased, but I suppose that was a funny affair.
Did many of the students have cars in those days?
We mostly had our fathers' cars. I drove my father's car. I used to drive myself in to most dances – and the cars were used for sitting in, between dances – and then you would get home again after midnight. You didn't worry about driving around as a girl in the middle of the night in Brisbane in those days. There were very few perverts about, or that sort of person, and there was no worry attached to it.
We all wore what was called evening dress. The men wore dinner jackets, rather than full dress – full dress was very rare. Richards used to come out in full dress occasionally; I can't remember why.
In fact, all the staff attended the dances. You would dance with Michie, or you would dance with Priestley, or with Richards and so on. You knew the staff socially, through the dances. The men students would dance with the professors' wives and the professors would dance with the women students.
It seems to have been a small society, with an atmosphere which was probably more intimate than today. I guess a lot of people got married within that society too.
Oh yes. Most of the women married university men. For a lot of the men there weren't enough women to go round [laugh] so they had to marry outside, but a very large number did make university marriages.
Were you regretful when you left all this in 1930? I suppose you were quite enthusiastic and excited about going to Cambridge. It was a milestone in your life.
I didn't see it as a leaving something but as a continuing, and on a higher plane – which in fact it did turn out to be. I found there, of course, the magnificent resources of the Cambridge University library.
I think of all the benefits that could be bestowed upon a young student in those days, a great library was the main one. Many people talk about those you meet and who inspire you. Well, I must say that I never got any inspiration from anybody [laugh] but I got a great deal from the books that I was able to get out of the library.
We'll come back a little later to your Cambridge years and also to your point about libraries.
You took a fourth year for honours at the University of Queensland, and in 1929 you applied for a travelling fellowship. The following year, however, you got a different award, didn't you?
That's right. It was a Foundation Travelling Scholarship. Alan Hoey [or Howie?] got the one the year before.
I had got one of the first open science scholarships. The government decided to support research at the university and put up £300 (I think) a year to support an open scholarship, and I had that for a year. At the end of that year I had applied for the 1851 Exhibition, which had just become available to applicants from the University of Queensland, but I got the Foundation Travelling Scholarship first. I was then asked whether I wanted to wait for the Exhibition scholarship and let the Foundation Travelling Scholarship go to somebody else. Always having been not a gambler, however [laugh], I said I'd take the bird in the hand. The university were quite pleased with that, because it allowed Monty White's application to go forward from the University of Queensland, and he got the Exhibition scholarship. So he and I went off to England at the same time.
I suppose Richards would have been very keen for you to go.
He was away overseas in the first year, when Hoey got the Foundation Travelling Scholarship. When Richards was back, I think he made quite a lot of difference in the councils of the university, one way and another. I don't know, but I've always thought that he was energetic on my behalf at that stage. So that all turned out well in the end.
There was a woman who would have got the Foundation Travelling Scholarship if I'd not opted for that one, and I think she always had a certain amount of resentment because I had chosen that. But from my point of view, the Foundation scholarship was £100 less than the other one, which was also a consideration. It got me overseas, and I got a free Orient Line passage, so I was very happy with that: I didn't have to pay any travelling fare. (P&O and the Orient Line both gave support in the form of free passages.)
Going to Cambridge would have been an experience in itself. When you arrived, were you overwhelmed by it all? Was there a sense of difference from Queensland?
No, I wasn't overwhelmed. I was depressed to begin with, because I thought the buildings were old and dirty. It was quite some time before the beauty became apparent to me. That was because I was looking at it with Australian eyes, and the beauties that I was used to – gum trees and our sort of atmosphere, and space, and cleanliness everywhere – I didn't find. It took me quite a while to realise that there were different standards and that these indeed were very beautiful buildings, particularly when they began to steam clean them.
Did you read for a degree at Cambridge? If you did, who was your supervisor there?
I took a PhD at Cambridge. My supervisor was Gertrude Elles, an outstanding woman geologist at the time.
Is she someone you've modelled yourself on?
No, I don't think I've modelled myself on anybody. I've been a person who's gone my own way.
I took two years to take the PhD. The rule said you had to have either three years or the equivalent thereof, but there was a clause which enabled the supervisor to state that you had indeed reached the standard that would be expected at the end of a first year in Cambridge. Because I had done a year's research here with the open scholarship, my supervisor said that I had reached the required standard and could take the PhD in two years in Cambridge.
For your PhD did you use material that you had gathered in Queensland?
Yes. I took over to Cambridge a collection of corals which was made by myself and Fred Whitehouse just before I went overseas, and worked on that for the first two years.
Whitehouse graduated in about around 1921 and went across to Cambridge on an early Foundation Travelling Scholarship. He was the first person to have his Foundation Travelling Scholarship extended to three years. You see, when he went over you didn't do any research back here beforehand; you had to do three years there or not get your degree. And his supervisor wrote out here to Queensland and suggested that this student was so good that he really ought to be given an extension of his year's scholarship. Richards was able to persuade Senate that they should extend the scholarship, and Whitehouse is the first person from Queensland to get a PhD at Cambridge.
I think you would have been one of the earliest Queensland graduates to get a PhD at Cambridge.
Yes. After Whitehouse, I was the second.
Following my PhD I got the Old Students' Research Fellowship of Newnham College, Cambridge – a women's college – and I lived in the college for three years as a fellow. At the end of that time I had an 1851 Senior Scholarship, and that lasted for another two years.
New opportunities in a familiar Queensland setting
What caused you to return to Australia?
I was at Cambridge for seven years, 1930 to 1937, at the time of the Depression. By 1937 everything was still very depressed here but just beginning to lift its head a bit, and part of the head-lifting process was the granting to the universities by the government, through CSIR [the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research], of moneys to encourage research at universities. Richards saw a way of getting me back to Queensland by persuading Senate to give me some money from the residue after the grants had been distributed. There was £700 left and he persuaded them to give me, I think, £400 of that as a scholarship and £100 for expenses. And I said, 'Yes, I'll be glad to come back to do research.'
You see, by this time I'd found Cambridge rather desiccating. After seven years I began to feel that it was a bit removed from life. And having now discovered that intellectual pleasures were the things that I most wanted – and knowing how to get them, having used this great library at Cambridge and having been able to speak with all sorts of people on even terms – I felt that I could have the best of both worlds if I came back to Australia.
For a woman to get a geological job in Australia at that time, however, was like asking for pie in the sky, and so when Richards made this miraculous move I was only too delighted and came back running, so to speak. The only drawback was that the war was about to begin and I was a bit disappointed at coming back here: I wanted to be over there to be in it.
You could see it looming even then, in 1937?
Oh, we knew it was going to come, yes, and we all knew that England was caught napping and everybody was going to be needed. Anyway, it didn't turn out quite that way because Neville Chamberlain bought the Germans off for two years.
You were a research fellow at CSIR for six years, till 1943. Were you also teaching at that time?
Yes, I used to give six lectures a week.
That was part of the fellowship terms, was it?
Well, it was part of what Queensland regarded as the fellowship terms; I don't know that the Commonwealth government said you should teach [laugh]. But it was good, both because it enabled the research fellow to see how they went as a teacher, and also because it enabled the staff to see whether this particular person would be any good as a staff member.
You had been away from this university for seven years. What did you notice had changed most since 1930? The war would have still pervaded everything, I suppose.
There was very little change, actually – it was very gradual.
Had the types of students changed at all? Even the Arts students might have gone to university for professional advancement, rather than just doing a degree for the sake of education.
Oh, most people went to the university to increase their capacity. I think the students were exactly the same in type as they had been. They had the same aims, they took life as it was – they didn't want to turn it upside down and inside out; they accepted what was there, they knew they were lucky and they made the best of it.
You were probably still a lucky person to make it to university, because we hadn't developed our scholarship system very much. But student numbers had doubled during your years away, from 700 to 1400. Did you find the intimate atmosphere of the university had changed?
No. The number of students had increased, but there didn't seem to be so very many, as a matter of fact. Staff numbers had increased, but only slightly, because we were still ploughing our way out of the Depression years and there wasn't money to hire people. I couldn't say that there was much change at all when I got back, really.
We still hadn't got anywhere. They were germinating new faculties – Law, Science, Agriculture – but they weren't making any impact, because they were so poorly staffed.
H C Richards was still at the helm of the Geology Department, Bryan was there?
Richards was still there, Bryan was still there, Whitehouse was still there.
In 1940 you received an award from the Lyell Geological Fund of the Geological Society of London. What was that?
That was a little grant of money, £30 or something like that, which was to encourage the young research person to do better [laugh].
It seems rather strange that even in wartime they were still making awards for academic excellence.
It takes more than wars to make the English scientist change his ways!
During your work at CSIR – it had not yet become CSIRO – were you back into the south-east Queensland hinterland?
Oh, I was working on Australian material: New South Wales, Victorian, Western Australian, Tasmanian and Queensland.
After the intellectual stimulation and, presumably, more advanced facilities of Cambridge, did you feel you were returning to a geological backwater in Australia?
No, you only move back into a backwater if you feel so inclined. You always create your own environment, it seems to me. What's the use of being in research unless you create your own environment? I worked with Bryan, who was interested in spherulitic crystallisation in rocks. I was interested in spherulitic crystallisation in corals, and we did a joint paper – which I couldn't have done in Cambridge because there wasn't anybody interested in that same aspect over there. But apart from that, I was able here to do the things that I would have done there. I didn't really feel that I was returning to a backwater.
I suppose the ability to correspond by post with one's peers was still well developed and would offset any isolation.
I did a great deal of that, yes, and wasn't at all worried by isolation.
You could hardly get on a plane and whip down to Sydney for a quick two-day conference.
Oh well, I used to drive down and use the southern libraries. They had a very short-sighted policy of not putting books through the post, so there was no interlibrary loan. If you wanted to use a southern library, you went down and sat in it.
I happened to be down there when the war with Japan broke out, and I spent quite some time, perhaps nearly a week, packing up all the important type specimens in the fossil collections of the Australian Museum ready for sending across behind the ranges – for protection against the midget submarines, I suppose [laugh]. Anyway, that was a little bit of the war history.
In 1943 you did finally get into the war effort, in the Navy. What were your naval duties?
To begin with, I didn't join the Navy. The need was for a civilian cypher service to act in Macarthur's headquarters, and I was asked whether I would look after that. (It may have been the naval officer-in-charge, E P Thomas, Penry Thomas, who asked me.) So I found myself there, a sort of senior woman with a whole lot of undergraduates and typists, doing the cypher work from the naval section for Macarthur's headquarters. We used to get all the Navy signals sent in from everywhere.
It was interesting but terrifying, I must say, because you were getting signals saying that half the Australian fleet had been sunk, or the British fleet, or the American fleet, in the middle of the night. It was a very busy time. I can remember the day of the Battle of Midway: we all had little air raid shelters round at home and after I'd got home after my shift I thought, 'Oh well, perhaps I'll be running in to the air raid shelter by tonight.' There was indeed an air raid alarm, but it was a false one.
Midway was probably the turning point in the Pacific War. Did you still have a connection with the university during that time?
Oh yes, because it wasn't a full-time job. One shift, eight hours – it wasn't very hard work [laugh]. Cyphering is very easy, really, and I used to spend my spare time at the university.
Did depression pervade the university at the time? Did things close down?
Nothing closed down. No, everything went on. I wasn't depressed by it, I was exhilarated by it. Even the fact that we might be bombed I found exhilarating, and I guess this is how people react in battle: they get exhilarated, they don't get their tails down.
Did other university people become involved in the war effort?
Whitehouse enlisted and went into Army Intelligence. He did terrain studies all round Queensland, on which he published geological papers later, and I rather think he then went into the Islands campaign.
Bryan was called up at the beginning of war to go to the census office, because he was on the officer reserve. But he did not go on with that, I think very largely because Richards, though himself a civilian, was one of the chief controllers of science personnel in the directed activities. I have put this in my history; you'll find it in there.
How long did Richards live on after that?
He died in 1947. He had carried a massive workload – right from, I suppose, about 1925 onward. You have to remember that he was the person that represented the university, usually, at the equivalent of today's Vice-Chancellors' conference, and he had to travel a good deal. Also, he was president of the Professorial Board for some time.
Rescue of the University of Queensland Library
You have spoken of the Cambridge University library and of needing to use southern libraries in Australia. As you say in the speech to Convocation, much has been made of the research capacity of this university but very little is made of the fact that its library was a neglected part of it for a very long time.
The university library was absolutely fatherless until Harrison Bryan and Greenwood got together. It wasn't really until Gordon Greenwood and Harrison Bryan formed a team that the library was anything but a shelf with books on. That was the attitude of the Senate to it: it was just books on a shelf and that was that.
It was forever eaten by white ants and was overcrowded?
Oh, gosh, it was terrible. We had a reasonable departmental library, because Richards had the right ideas about libraries, as about everything else. He spent as much money as he possibly could on building up the periodical collection and having adequate monographs for the subject. So we were not starved in Geology, but because I had interests also in English literature and history – although I didn't have time to do it much at the university – I did go into the university library at the time to see what was there [laugh]. And I said, 'I'll never go there again.' It was absolutely uncared for: books in no order, lying on their sides, covers off, nothing whatever that you could make good use of.
Well, Cumbrae-Stewart, the Registrar, doubled as the Librarian too. I'm sure he spent more time as Registrar than as Librarian.
There was no appreciation whatever of what a library could do, and should do. It wasn't until Harrison Bryan and Greenwood got together that the attitude began to change.
The Library Committee also became rather effective in pushing its cause. We had always had a library committee at the Senate level, but it seems to have been low in prestige, with members who just incidentally ended up on it.
I really don't think they knew or understood the purpose of a university library.
The university wasn't far away from the State Library. Were the other libraries in town used by the students?
Not by scientists. Had I been an Arts student I probably would have made use of the facilities at the State Library, but there would be no use in going to the State Library as a scientist – only for relaxation. When you're young, though, you don't have sedentary relaxation; you have active relaxation [laugh]. It's only later when you adopt the library pleasures.
University staff in the 1930s and 1940s
Let's talk a bit more about your return from Cambridge to Queensland. You have said the staff numbers had not increased much in the interim, but do you remember any of the new staff?
No, I don't remember anybody new that had arrived. I do remember Tommy Parnell there, but I had known him before. We had lovely little university garden parties on the lawn at the old Government House in George Street, and I went to one of those very shortly after I got back. Tommy Parnell bent over – he was rather quizzical, and I'm short so he had to bend over to talk to me – and he said, 'And do you think you're going to be able to do any research here now, Miss Hill?' He knew as well as I did, of course, that there was nothing in the libraries. But I said that in England I'd acquired as much scientific literature on my particular specialty as I possibly could and I'd brought it all back with me, and I'd specially arranged good correspondence relations with my fellow specialists all round the world, and I was quite sure that I'd be getting enough stuff to go on working on! [laugh] So he said, 'Oh well, that'll be all right. I was a bit worried, you know.'
What was Parnell like? Was he a retiring man?
No, he was shy, I would say, rather than retiring. He was a physicist and they always see things in black and white, whereas I prefer the greyer variety of people. Nothing is ever black and white, in my experience; it's always tones of grey. But I did like Tommy Parnell. He again was very genuine.
He joined the war as a private, and there is a nice story that one day when he was filling a sandbag, an officer came along who was one of Tommy's old students. Tommy dropped his pipe out of his mouth and clicked his heels together and saluted, and the poor fellow nearly dropped through the floor!
I don't know how he ended up, whether he remained a private, but I always thought the story was so characteristic, because he could be very particular about matters of form. Because he was a private and his student was an officer, he'd have given absolutely the proper and correct salute instantly.
Do you remember anything of the senior staff at that time? Cumbrae-Stewart, for example, was the Registrar when you first arrived. He went on to be Garrick Professor of Law, but he certainly wasn't a very good Librarian.
Well, he always seemed to me to be a pompous little individual. I suppose he had his good points, but they weren't apparent to me [laugh]. These things are all recorded in the Senate business, anyhow; you can see how that came about.
And Page-Hanify succeeds him.
He was a very human type. I saw quite a bit of him. He had a motorboat which he made available to the science students and on which we went down to Moreton Bay – with his son as master of the boat, of course – and had many pleasant days teaching students how to research in the bay environment.
Did you ever meet the man himself, J D Story, at that time?
Oh yes. I never cared for him. I thought he was far too chauvinistic – indeed, sort of fossilised.
Yet he is around for another 30 years, perhaps as a moving force. But I think the damage he does is that he is around for so long, with such a firm imprint on the place, that the alternatives don't seem to emerge. It seems that it is after he goes – and probably quite coincidentally with access to Commonwealth funds – that the university does take off. He certainly had a utilitarian view of the university.
Yes, it was all to serve the State and the Public Service. Well, he was a man of his time, I guess, but he wasn't a university man, in my opinion. He kept a dead hand on the university.
What other senior people do you remember? I suppose the administration would have been very small, and quite remote from the day-to-day lives of academics and students.
No, I knew the administrators quite well. You saw Page-Hanify and it was hail-fellow-well-met all the time. And any of the senior clerks or whatever they were called in those days were all extremely approachable. John Deeble Cramb was always very approachable. And Bruce Green was there. I remember them all; they were part of the family in those days.
So if a gulf does exist today, it has come about only because the university is so large?
There was a time just at the end of the war when we had quite a few of the old fellows dying. Michie died in 1946; Henry Alcock is another one. What do you remember of Henry Alcock, the historian?
Not a great deal. I knew more about Melbourne than about Henry Alcock. Alcock seemed to be rather distant and he didn't appear to me to have any of that personal magnetism that one likes to have in a university person. Alexander Melbourne, on the other hand, was a very vigorous and dynamic man. Although one felt one wouldn't always agree with him, he nevertheless was a man that you remembered better and felt more drawn towards than Henry Alcock, who seemed a rather dry, English-academic type.
It strikes me, reading the records, that Melbourne is someone who would have inevitably ended up being, in the present context, a Vice-Chancellor.
Well, he jolly nearly started the library growing. It was only his death that stopped it from becoming a university library at that time. He died very young.
He did much to focus the university on the Far East. He made a number of trips out there. I think he realised that a university should develop areas of expertise and that we could build on our geographical proximity to that part of the world.
Yes, that's right. And he had indeed got Senate to agree to something, but when he died nothing came of it. We did get a Japanese out here – just in time to be interned!
It was unfortunate that the war squashed any idea of our interest in the Orient for a while.
That's right. Melbourne was certainly a man of his time, a good, forward-looking man. I think he would have made a good scientist, actually.
Moving the university to St Lucia
You have said that nothing much had changed, but there was a change in direction: 'We're not going to
move to Victoria Park. We're going to St Lucia.' Did you go to the laying of the stone in 1938?
No, I didn't go to any laying of any stone. I was probably in my lab, researching. You must remember I was a devoted research worker [laugh].
What was the feeling at the time? Were people excited about moving to St Lucia?
No. It was half and half, because the central site was very convenient – just getting on a tram and going down there, you could get to it from anywhere in Brisbane – and people seemed very much of two minds about moving so far out. But I think everybody realised that if the university was to grow, it simply had to move, and so we all threw in our lot with it and did our best for it.
No-one would have realised that it would take 16 or 17 years after the decision for the move out here to take place.
I think they tried to hurry it on because they saw the war about to start, but they didn't really get very far. Geology finally moved in 1950 or '51. On the whole, the move was the only thing we could possibly have done. Everybody wanted the University of Queensland to become a major university.
I suppose it would have had an effect even on people's residence, for example.
Oh well, I changed my residence. We lived at Coorparoo and the traffic jams as I drove to the university had to be seen to be believed. And so when we'd finished educating our nieces and nephews who had come to live with us from the country, we sold up and moved out here.
Indeed, the St Lucia site has something quite distinctive about it: not only is the university located here but the immediate suburbs tend to contain the academic residences and the student locations.
That's right. Bryan, for instance, moved from Nundah up to here, and Owen Jones moved from the river bank, closer to Taringa, out to this district.
We won't talk any further about the postwar period at the moment – in 1947 you finally commenced duties as a lecturer, and I think that's where we should start our next discussion.
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