Professor Richard Stanton, geologist

Professor Richard Stanton. Interview sponsored by the University of New England.

Professor Richard Stanton was born in 1926. He studied geology and mathematics at the New England University College of the University of Sydney at Armidale, which later became the University of New England (UNE). Professor Stanton worked for a time as an exploration geologist with Broken Hill South Ltd before returning to the University of Sydney in 1950. In 1952 he was awarded an MSc and in 1956 a PhD in geology. During his studies, he was involved in the first systematic geological mapping of the Solomon Islands. Professor Stanton took up a National Research Council of Canada two year post-doctorate fellowship at Queen’s University, Ontario, and then returned to Armidale and joined the Department of Geology at UNE. He remained at the UNE until 1986. During his time there he took sabbaticals to Harvard (1966–67) and Oxford (1978–1980). His research has for the most part been concerned with the ways in which metallic ore deposits have been formed and the geological setting in which they now occur on the various continents. This field of study is referred to as ‘economic geology’.

Teachers' notes to accompany this transcript.
You can order the DVD from the Academy for $15 (including GST and postage)

Interviewed by Professor Ken Campbell in 2008.



Professor Richard Stanton’s research has, for the most part, been concerned with the ways in which metallic ore deposits have formed, and the geological settings in which they now occur in the various continents. It is a field of study generally referred to as ‘economic geology’, which (as it is generally understood in the geological environment) mostly involves the application of already established geological principles to the discovery of new ore deposits. It is very much an applied science, with very strong commercial applications.

But Professor Stanton’s work is distinctive, in that it has involved not only the application of established principles to the discovery of ore deposits, but the development of new principles of geological science that may be applied to the search for ore. His work is perhaps most appropriately thought of as pure science, and indeed it is pure science that has to be easily applied. The study of ore-forming minerals has found application in most aspects of geological and applied sciences – and in the whole aspect of economics – in Australia and around the world.

His work has ranged over large areas – for example, the role of volcanism and sedimentation in the formation of a very important class of ore deposits known as massive sulphide deposits; the association of these with volcanic island arcs; the ways in which the metals, such as copper, zinc and lead, are concentrated in volcanic lavas; the physical and chemical mineralogy of the ores; and, added to these, the nature of the association of volcanic massive sulphide ores with small, iron-rich sedimentary accumulations known as banded iron formations. Also, he has addressed the nature and result of the processes by which the ores may be metamorphosed (modified) during their deep burial in large sedimentary accumulations that later become parts of the continents that we inhabit today.

Professor Stanton’s work has opened up many new fields of study, and has influenced geological research and mineral exploration throughout the world.

Back to top

A fascination with crystals but not much study time

We are here today because you became a scientist, and a geologist in particular. Was this influenced by your early life, by your family, by your schooling, just by general inclination – or perhaps by a combination of all these?

Well, I suppose natural inclination and my schooling both played a part, but there has been a very strong element of chance in the whole thing.

As far as inclination was concerned, from a very early age I was interested in the natural world. With my parents I travelled a lot when I was very young. (As it happens, I was born of English parents at a time when they were temporarily abroad.) Some of my earliest recollections are of the sea, of travelling by boat, new coastlines, seeing new countries, and I became very interested in scenery and coastlines such as the chalk cliffs of southern England, particularly in the area near Hastings. I collected butterflies, bugs, seashells and, I'm rather ashamed to say, birds' eggs. I also collected minerals. I remember being particularly fascinated by crystals, and collecting some quartz crystals. I was also very interested in some of the coloured minerals: the copper minerals azurite and malachite, and so on. So I suppose there was a natural inclination towards natural science.

As far as schooling was concerned, my first year of secondary schooling was in England. Our science master – a man named Scott, quite a colourful character and very interesting – did experiments that impressed me, and I clearly remember looking at butterflies' wings, petals and so forth under the microscope. He used to take us out into the countryside quite often, where I caught newts in ditches and found moorhens' nests, with their eggs, out on the marshes. So that year was largely biological. It was very interesting. I enjoyed it, but there were other things I enjoyed too.

I had the major part of my secondary schooling in Sydney. I was fortunate enough to go to North Sydney High School, one of the three great selective high schools in New South Wales. The others were Sydney High School, and Fort Street. Of these, Fort Street has become known as having produced a lot of distinguished lawyers, whereas Sydney High and North Sydney produced distinguished medicos and scientists.

My science master at North Sydney High School was a physicist named Monk, an Englishman. He was a quietly enthusiastic, very clear teacher. Interestingly, in a period of about six years from 1938 to 1942 or '43 he taught six boys who ultimately became Fellows of the Australian Academy of Science – distinguished physicists, botanists, myself a geologist. I'd be very surprised if any other science master in the country could say the same thing. He was a very fine teacher.

The element of chance will probably come out much more in the present interview. But my school career, I suppose, didn't particularly indicate that I would become a scientist. I wasn't studious at all. I played a great deal of sport. I became quite a well-known competitive swimmer; I played representative schoolboy rugby; I ran, and did all sorts of other things.

On one occasion in my final year our headmaster, RF Harvey, who was quite famous and was a formidable individual who demanded very high standards generally, was going through the work of each member of the class. I remember standing up in class and he looked at me with almost an air of resignation and said, 'Stanton, you're a boy with a lot of latent ability. The trouble is, you keep it latent.'

I know that a lot of Fellows of the Academy had a very early predisposition towards science and did very well at school, went to the university and had distinguished careers, and then went on to become distinguished scientists. I wasn't like that at all. Well, I suppose many people would say I was a fairly normal sort of schoolboy. I was lucky, in a way, in that I was one of those people who seem to be able to do little work but somehow get away with it in the examinations.

Back to top

New focus and growth in undergraduate geology

Having finished school you went to Armidale, to the New England University College of the University of Sydney, to begin undergraduate science. What induced you to go to Armidale, when you lived in Sydney and Sydney University was not far away?

That immediately brings out the whole business of chance. Although I wasn't a studious, academically inclined schoolboy at all, it was always assumed in the family that one day I'd go to the university. As I recollect, the assumption was that I would probably do either medicine or science. Then one afternoon in 1943, when I was in my final year at school, the headmaster appeared at the classroom door and told us that he had some brochures from a newly established university college, a new branch of the University of Sydney, that had been set up in 1938. He had some brochures, and if any of the boys were interested, there was a copy available. I was interested in anything that was going, I suppose, so I indicated I was interested. And I can remember opening this thing up, being quite impressed by it, and saying to the boy next to me, 'If I did science, this is a place I'd rather like to go to.'

Well, I finished school, the beginning of 1944 came and I found myself included in the university quota of people selected to do accelerated wartime courses. (How on Earth this happened, goodness only knows – as I say, I 'got away with it' as far as examinations were concerned.) But I was more interested in joining the navy and training as a midshipman. I knew that in this training one did maths, physics and chemistry, and so on, and that was fine. When I went along, however, and inquired about doing a midshipman's course, I was advised that the navy just then seemed to have more men than ships to put them in, and as I'd been selected for the university quota perhaps it would be a good idea if I did a year at the university and then came back to do a midshipman's course and enter naval service.

I immediately thought that the thing to do was a first year of science. My mind turned to the New England University College, and I decided that I'd do a year of science there and then go into the navy. I thought, 'If and when I return from service, having done first year science I'll be able to enter either medicine or science.' As it turned out, by 1945 the war was coming towards a close – although there were still some nasty things to happen – and I didn't go into the navy. I remained a science student and continued on at the university college.

Do you recollect any particular events or circumstances during your undergraduate years that you think had a notable effect on your development as a scientist?

Most certainly there were influences on my development as a scientist, and on my going into geology. The first thing was that we were required to do four subjects in our first year. Naturally I was going to do mathematics, physics and chemistry, so I was looking for a fourth subject. A very enthusiastic young lecturer in geology tried to persuade me that the perfect choice for that fourth subject was geology, and as I'd always been mildly interested in minerals, and particularly crystals, I entered Geology I in the hope of doing something on crystals. As it turned out, I proceeded on to a double major in geology and mathematics.

The second influential experience was that I fell in with a small group of people, chiefly mathematicians and physicists, who were very academically inclined, and I quickly learned from them that study was enjoyable. I'd spent all my time on sport and so forth, and all of a sudden I began to realise that intellectual endeavour was a pleasurable activity. I also learned from these people to a certain extent how to think like a mathematician – although I would never have made a great mathematician, learning to think like that was very valuable for me. I have felt ever since then that everybody who does science should do at least one year of university mathematics, not so much to learn mathematical operations as simply to learn how to think mathematically. It is a very good discipline for any scientist to have had.

The third influence was that in my second year I had polio, which really put an end to my sporting career and consequently directed me more into doing academic work.

The fourth thing was perhaps not as tangible as the others. In third-year mathematics when we were, I think, doing differential geometry, we were set some examples to be done between lectures. There was one particular example that none of us could solve, so at the beginning of the next lecture we asked our lecturer whether he would mind doing it for us on the board – which he did. And he attacked this problem in a way that none of us had thought of, in such a way that the whole thing just dropped out. As he reached this most elegant solution he turned to the class and said to us, 'Isn't that beautiful?' I can remember thinking to myself, 'Yes, it is beautiful.'

To that point in my life I'd understood many forms of beauty: beautiful scenery, beautiful paintings, prose, poetry, beautiful girls of course! But this was what one might call pure intellectual beauty, and it was the first time I'd really understood that. I looked at it and thought, 'That really is beautiful.' Ever since, I have understood that and greatly enjoyed elegant solutions to scientific problems. A beautiful example, I suppose, is something like the elucidation of the DNA structure – something that when you look at it, when it is solved, is beautifully simple, but its simplicity has a great elegance.

Back to top

From the academic scene to mineral exploration

Having completed your BSc in Armidale and been appointed to a demonstratorship at the University of Sydney, early in 1947, you decided after a few months to abandon an academic career and go into industry. You joined the mineral exploration staff of Broken Hill South Ltd, one of the major companies at Broken Hill. Why was that?

Well, I quite enjoyed demonstrating. There were large postwar classes at that stage, and the Sydney University Department of Geology was a very good one, one of the very best or perhaps the best in the country. But after I had been there for a while it seemed to me that, although the department had very able people, one member of staff was doing this and another member of staff was devoted to doing that, and there didn't seem to be any overall sense of purpose.

I was young, admittedly, and perhaps my judgment of the atmosphere there was harsh and unjust, but I suppose by that time I had developed into the sort of individual who liked to feel that he was moving toward some sort of purpose, that there was something that he was aiming to solve, something generally that he was aiming for. So I found myself in a somewhat disconcerting situation.

This was immediately after the war, however, in a period of intense postwar reconstruction, as it was called. There had been enormous damage from bombing in Germany and France, and Britain had suffered terribly. A great deal of reconstruction, rebuilding, was required. That in turn required raw materials, of which an important part was metals, and the metals came from the mineral industry, from mines.

In Australia we had some very large mines, and we profited very greatly from this whole business of increased demand stemming from postwar reconstruction. But although we had some very large deposits, it was realised that we would soon require many more, and so there quickly developed a whole new activity called mineral exploration: the application of scientific – that is, geological – principles to the systematic, scientific search for more ore deposits.

Up to that time, most ore deposits had been found by prospectors who simply searched over the surface, but they had little scientific background. Now, however, it was immediately seen that geology could be applied, in a systematic way, to searching for new deposits. And this opened up a whole new area of opportunity for geological graduates. There was a great surge in mineral exploration activity, which I thought looked very exciting, and so I decided to depart from the academic scene and to go into mineral exploration.

Back to top

An intriguing distribution of ore deposits

I went to Broken Hill, and I spent the first few months actually working in the mines there. I quickly found that although the work was interesting geologically, the mining life was very rough. There were many very fine human beings among the miners, but it was a very rough and ready existence in an environment that I wasn't used to at all.

Then I was sent to Far North Queensland, to work up along the spine of Cape York Peninsula – north of Chillagoe and Mungana, up round Maytown, the Cooktown hinterland. I worked there under very rough conditions. I didn't have a vehicle; I got around either on my own two feet or on a horse. I was isolated, and my living conditions were quite dreadful. After about 15 months there I began to think that while mineral exploration had looked exciting, it really wasn't the life for me, and again I considered perhaps turning round and doing medicine.

Anyway, I returned to New South Wales and was given the job of looking at an old copper mine at Burraga, about 50 miles south of Bathurst. The idea was to examine the old mining area geologically and then do a careful, small-scale, fine-scale geological map of the area, 30 feet to the inch, to find whether one could see geological indication of any extensions or repetitions of an old ore body that had been worked about 50 years earlier.

I worked away on this, certainly in much pleasanter country than Far North Queensland, but I can remember feeling after a while that I was doing the work on such a fine scale that I really couldn't see the wood for the trees. There was something about it that I found not satisfying.

Chance intervened again, however. Every now and then I used to have to travel up from Burraga to Bathurst by bus. And as I looked out the window of the bus one day, I noticed every now and again, a little way off the road, a little old mine-working. There might be a little spoil heap, a little heap of slag or a little poppet head, indication of a mine shaft. Over the distance of 50 miles I guess there were perhaps seven, eight or nine of these.

The next time I was travelling on the bus I was on the lookout for these little mines, and after we'd passed three or four I began to think to myself that the rocks round each of them looked rather similar. That interested me, and the next weekend I got out there on an old pushbike I had. I pedalled round and looked at these mines, and sure enough the rocks were similar. In every case they were volcanic rocks of a particular type. I'd been working on a very fine, detailed scale, but I began to wonder whether there might be a very broad pattern to ore occurrence­ – whether, if one looked on a large scale, the ore deposits might be seen to occur in a distinct pattern related to the geological features of the area concerned. I had never seen any reference to the idea of a broad regional pattern of ore occurrence, and I thought it would be something interesting to look at one day.

Anyway, at that time (right at the end of 1949, beginning of 1950) Professor Cotton, at the University of Sydney – who apparently had been keeping his eye on me – asked me if I would like to return to the university. There was a teaching fellowship vacant and would I by any chance be interested in taking this up? Well, I'd found mineral exploration really not to my liking, and I quickly thought that if any time would be right for a move out of it, at least for the time being, this was it. I thought I could go back to the university, do a certain amount of teaching, do further courses myself, and perhaps, in any spare time I might have, take up that business of the regional pattern of mineralisation. Perhaps I could get back to the area and have a look at it in more detail. So I accepted Professor Cotton's invitation and went back to the university.

Back to top

A PhD on a regional pattern of mineralisation

The broad aspects of the Bathurst trip stimulated you to take a certain kind of approach to mineral exploration, and you asked Sydney University if you could do a masters degree. Having completed a masters degree, you then embarked on a PhD, a degree which was just being introduced into Australian universities. At the end of the 1940s there weren't too many PhDs around, so yours must have been one of the early PhDs in geology to be offered by Sydney University.

Ahh, yes, it would have been. I think the first geological PhD at Sydney University was that obtained by GF Joklik, who was a member of staff of the Bureau of Mineral Resources at the time and had a scholarship to the university. The second was that of TG Vallance, a petrologist. Then I think mine followed his.

When I returned to the university, I had barely heard of PhDs; I didn't really know what a PhD was. But I was persuaded to embark on this, and clearly the subject that presented itself for research was the business of a regional pattern of mineralisation, as illustrated in the Bathurst–Burraga area.

At that stage, as you say, PhDs were new to Australia, and there was probably a period of settling down. These days, in most cases, somebody wanting to do a PhD either is given a subject for their research or asks a potential supervisor for a subject. In those days, that was unheard of. If you didn't know what you wanted to do for your PhD, what business had you asking if you could do a PhD? You were expected to know what you wanted to do. And in my case, of course, I did.

Another difference is that supervision was not nearly as formal and as systematic as it is now; it was much looser in those days and, in fact, in my case one could say that it was infinitely loose. It might be hard to believe, but during the whole period of my PhD candidature I didn't have a single conversation with my supervisor on the subject of my research. I wasn't sure that this was quite right, and perhaps I was a wee bit uneasy about it, but in many ways I wasn't unhappy. I was really quite content to make my own way. In retrospect, it may have been a very good thing, because I had nobody else's ideas imposed on mine. I think I could discipline myself quite well, as a supervisor might have been expected to discipline me intellectually. I developed my ideas, I had no feeling of intellectual insecurity, I was happy to quietly go along and do the degree essentially unsupervised. I completed it early in 1954, and I submitted my thesis in June 1954.

Two things came out of doing my PhD that I suppose you could say began to set me on my way as an earth scientist. Firstly, in the course of the research I found very definitely that there was a regional pattern. In the area that I worked on – something over 1000 square kilometres – there were about 40 of these small ore deposits that had been worked in earlier times. Examining the ore, I found it was always stratified; it occurred in laminations. It occurred in sedimentary rock, and you could see the sedimentary bedding in it. If you look carefully at this illustration you can see very, very fine sedimentary bedding that in this case has been severely contorted.

Not only was it a feature of the ores that they were very finely laminated, but in the regional sense they always occurred associated with one or other of two distinct types of volcanic rock. In addition, they always seemed to occur in areas where there were little masses of limestone among the other rocks. This limestone was substantially coralline and you could see that it really represented little reefs, and I was beginning to come to the conclusion from the pattern of ore occurrence that, however the ores had formed, they now seemed to occur in sedimentary rocks that had been laid down on the seaward side of little coral reefs that had developed round old volcanic islands. So the first thing was that I'd found this interesting pattern of occurrence over quite a large area.

A second very influential thing transpired about a year after I began this work: Dr WR Browne, reader in geology at the University of Sydney, gave the Clarke Memorial Lecture of the Royal Society of New South Wales, under the title 'Metallogenic epochs and ore regions in the Commonwealth of Australia'. I went along to this, and although I suspect that most of the audience was bored stiff, in the light of the work I'd been doing it was really quite fascinating to me.

Browne talked about the occurrence of ore deposits throughout Australia and the fact that many of them seemed to occur in distinct regions. You had these regions that might be, say, 300, 400, 500 miles long, and perhaps 100 to 200 miles wide, each containing a number of ore deposits. The ore deposits, which might have been lead-zinc ores, or copper ores, or gold ores, all bore similarities – they seemed to have developed at about the same time, to be about the same age, and they had many similarities of form. Browne referred to these periods as 'metallogenic epochs', and these areas that they seemed to occur in as 'metallogenic regions'.

This was immediately interesting to me because I had found this regional pattern of ore occurrence in the Bathurst–Burraga area. Browne was talking about metallogenic, or metallogenetic, regions and I thought, 'Perhaps there's something to what I've been doing. Browne has been talking about these regions in a very loose sort of way. Perhaps I've found and delineated one of them and I'm showing it up in more geological detail.' This was very encouraging.

Back to top

Unexpectedly dispatched to the Solomon Islands

Your PhD candidature was, I understand, interrupted by field work in the Solomon Islands, in late 1950 and early 1951. Indeed, you carried out the first systematic geological mapping ever done in that part of the world, and subsequently you were responsible for the mapping of the first of the Solomon Islands to be completely surveyed in this way! I believe that your going there was rather unexpected but highly influential in your subsequent career, and that the story of your being sent there is quite amusing. Perhaps you could tell us something about this episode.

[laugh] Well, it is certainly amusing in retrospect; it may not have been quite so amusing at the time. Towards the end of 1950 I was moving along with the geological mapping required for my PhD work and I was beginning to see a pattern developed. One could say that my PhD was developing well, and I was really quite pleased with it. I was thinking in terms of devoting the coming long vacation, from Christmas into January and part of February, to getting on with the mapping and perhaps getting the major part of the field work done.

In late September or early October, however, I was walking along a corridor in the Department of Geology at the University of Sydney and I encountered the professor's secretary. (There was a new professor by that time.) Immediately his secretary saw me she said, 'Oh, Professor Marshall wants to see you.' I thought, 'Oh dear, what've I done that I shouldn't have done, or what haven't I done that I should have done?'

In some trepidation I went along and knocked on his door and looked in. When he saw me, 'Oh,' he said, 'Stunton,' – he was a Geordie from Newcastle-on-Tyne – 'you're just the man I wanted to see. A great opportunity has just come up, wonderful opportunity, the sort of thing that only happens once in a lifetime, once in a generation.' He went on like this for some time, saying, 'A great opportunity for teamwork, team research in the Solomon Islands,' and finishing with, 'I'd like you to be one of the team.'

[sigh] Normally I would have jumped at the idea of going to the Solomon Islands, but here I was embarked on my PhD and it seemed to be going very well. Mind you, it was actually Marshall who had persuaded me to do the PhD. He was ostensibly my supervisor. I immediately responded that it was very kind of him to think of me in this connection, that it was a wonderful opportunity and the sort of thing that I would normally leap at, but being embarked on my PhD, which was going very well, I thought perhaps I really should stick with that. 'Oh,' he said, 'Stunton, it's a wonderful opportunity, the sort of thing that only ever comes up once in a lifetime. Tremendous opportunity for team research. As a matter of fact,' he said, 'you're booked on the plane on the 8th of December.' So that was that. I went to the Solomons.

I should say at this point that the Solomon Islands constitute a geological entity which since that time, over the last 50 or 60 years, has become of enormous interest and importance in geological studies generally. A festoon of islands about 600 miles long and 150 to 200 miles wide, the Solomons are referred to as a volcanic island arc.

There are a number of these in different parts of the world, and most of us are familiar with them at least as geographical entities – for example, the beautiful sweep of Sumatra and Java, and those volcanic islands going right round to Timor, about which we hear a lot these days, constitute a volcanic island arc. The string of islands of the Aleutians, sweeping round from Alaska towards Russia, that beautiful arcuate sweep of islands, they are all volcanoes in a volcanic island arc, as are the Kuriles, extending from the Kamchatka Peninsula to Japan. Japan itself is constituted of a number of old island arcs. The sweep of the islands of the West Indies, particularly the Lesser Antilles, they are all volcanic island arcs. The Solomons are a volcanic arc, and so are New Britain, with its curved structure of volcanoes, Vanuatu, the Tonga-Kermadec chain and so on. So the Solomons constituted a geological entity, a problem that was destined eventually to become extremely important geologically.

Back to top

An essential insight into volcanic island arcs

Well, I caught the plane on the 8th of December 1950. Most of the journey was in an unlined freighter DC3, not very comfortable, very cold when one got up in the air, and it took about four days to get from Sydney through New Guinea and New Britain, eventually to the Solomon Islands.

I had been there, I suppose, just four or five days when I began, I thought, to realise that I was in a modern analogue of the geological situation that I'd found in the Bathurst area of New South Wales. As I said a little while ago, it had occurred to me that the ore deposits there seemed to occur in sedimentary rocks that had accumulated on the seaward side of small coral reefs that had formed around volcanic islands.

Well, as I looked at the Solomons festoon I realised that, although there were a number of larger islands, there were many small islands that consisted of one or two volcanoes surrounded by fringing reefs. Most of the volcanoes were dormant, but some of them were still in a stage of degassing: they were giving off hot springs, little fumaroles, and so on.

When most people think of volcanic activity, they think in terms of really catastrophic eruption – the emission of large quantities of lava and volcanic dust and so on – and what most people don't realise is that a very major component of what is emitted is actually gas. Of course, we realise that many of these eruptions are explosive, and this is due to the gas content of the molten lava.

The composition of the gases is generally complex, and in many cases the gases contain volatile compounds of metals such as copper, zinc and lead, and many other elements.

We are reasonably familiar with the idea of this sort of degassing happening on the surface round volcanoes, but we must remember that with marine volcanoes the main bulk of the volcano is covered by the sea, and so a great deal of this gaseous emission occurs actually on the sea floor round the volcanoes.

The gases of course rise, are emitted onto the sea floor; the gases themselves are generally hot and concentrated, acid – or at least the solutions that derive from them are – and they immediately encounter the cold alkaline waters of the sea. And they precipitate the mineral matter that they contain (including metals) as a sort of apron round the degassing orifice.

Three things, I suppose, immediately occurred to me, looking about. The first was that perhaps the area I had been interested in in New South Wales – between Bathurst and Burraga, and perhaps extending southwards towards Canberra and northwards towards Mudgee, say – perhaps that in fact had been an old island arc, the scene of marine volcanic activity, a volcanic island festoon, about 360 million years ago, because that was the age of the rocks concerned.

The second thing that occurred to me was that perhaps the ore bodies that I'd observed in that area had been formed in the way I have just suggested, around individual volcanic islands.

And the third thing that occurred to me (which was perhaps more important, certainly quite as important as the others) was that the area in New South Wales, say extending down to Canberra and north to Mudgee, was the same order of size as the Solomon Islands – that is, the same order of size of the average volcanic island festoon. Now, if ore bodies had formed in this way round the individual islands, we would have a number of ore bodies along the length of the festoon. Perhaps, therefore, the metallogenetic regions that Dr WR Browne had talked about in that lecture that I'd been to in 1949 were in fact old volcanic island arcs, volcanic island festoons, that had now become parts of continents.

Back to top

Canadian coincidences and a geological principle

Next you took up a National Research Council of Canada postdoctorate fellowship at Queen's University, in Ontario. What did you do during the two-year lectureship of the award, and how did it influence your thinking about geological problems?

Well, Canada had for years been one of the countries in which ore deposit geology was extensively studied. It was a country that one immediately thought of if one wanted to advance one's studies in ore deposit research.

But as to what brought it about: I submitted my thesis in 1954 and the degree was awarded in 1955. I immediately published my work, in two papers: one, a very small paper in the Australian Journal of Science, in April 1955; the other, a very large, comprehensive paper in the very well-known international journal Economic Geology, in November 1955. This turned out, quite fortuitously, to be very interesting timing.

Mineral exploration in Canada was and is very heavily influenced by the seasons. The long winter, of course, is far too cold to be out in the field. So the Canadian geologists and mineral exploration geologists go out into the field and work all the summer, they come in to the office in the autumn with all their results, and they work in the office over the winter. November, when my major paper was published, was exactly the time when the Canadians were coming in from the field to do their period of winter office work – and on their desks was the latest copy of Economic Geology, with my paper in it.

Next thing, right at the end of 1955, I received a letter from a man named Sullivan, in a very big American firm, Kennecott Copper. He was head of their Toronto office, and was running all their mineral exploration in Canada. His letter said that he had been most interested to read this paper of mine on the mineralisation in the Bathurst district of New South Wales, because during that last summer his firm had begun to find some extremely interesting, major-scale mineralisation in the Bathurst district of New Brunswick, in the Maritimes of eastern Canada. He said that if I ever came to Canada, that was something I should go and look at.

I applied for and got a Canadian National Research Council postdoctorate fellowship, and one of the first things I did was to go and look at the Bathurst mineralisation in Canada. But I found I was to work under a Professor JE Hawley, whose speciality was the nickel ores of Sudbury, at that time the great nickel occurrence in the world. So I finished up working on both the Sudbury nickel and the Bathurst, New Brunswick, deposits for the next couple of years. I learned a great deal about nickel deposits. It was interesting, but nickel was not something that I continued on with.

Sullivan, when he wrote to me, had said that there was a great coincidence: not only were the names of the two Bathurst districts the same, but, judging from my paper, the types of ore and the geological environments in them were very similar. When I went out to Bathurst, New Brunswick – initially spending about a month there – I realised the similarity was simply uncanny. It began to be clear that you had here a matter of geological principle. Since you had similar geological histories, similar geological environments, where in both cases old volcanic island arcs had been developed and the ores, of course, developed in association with them, but in two parts of the world that were antipodes with respect to each other, there was a principle involved.

My work then was quickly recognised throughout the North American exploration world, and if you could say that I eventually acquired an international reputation, I suppose that was the beginning of it.

Back to top

Back to Australia, with some fruitful connections

You returned to Australia to accept a post in the University of New England, the new university that had developed from the New England University College and had received its autonomy in 1954. Why on Earth did you go back to Armidale? And after 28 years on the staff of the University of New England, finally as a professor, what are some of your thoughts on being back at Armidale after Canada?

Well, first of all in my going there, I suppose I have to admit that there was a certain amount of sentiment involved. I'd been an undergraduate at the old New England University College. It had been a very happy and interesting time. It was at that time that I first began to see the fascination – the excitement, I suppose – of science.

I wasn't overfond of large cities; I rather liked the country. And the thought of working away under relatively quiet conditions with a small group of like-minded people appealed to me. That probably wasn't the most important part of the reasons for my going there, but I have to admit that it played a part.

I suppose the most important reason was that at that time the standards of the university were very high. It was a very good small institution. It had been an intrinsic part of the University of Sydney, Australia's oldest and best-known university at the time; it had been a part of that, it had inherited its very high standards.

A number of its early appointees were very good. JM Somerville, in physics, was outstanding; RH Stokes, in chemistry, was a world-famous solution chemist; NCW Beadle, in botany, was probably Australia's great classical botanist. And the small group in the Department of Geology that I was to join – and, of course, you were one of them – was very promising.

So it was very attractive.

A third reason – a third attraction – was that there was an opportunity here to be in, so to speak, on the ground floor of the development of an altogether new institution. It had had 20 years of history, but it was still very young. There was the opportunity to help build an institution that, though one could never tell, perhaps would one day become great.

And there were a number of others who clearly thought this way. There was NH Fletcher, in physics, very able and of course a Fellow of this Academy; JV Evans, a very good veterinary physiologist; NTM Yeates, who came as the professor of animal science – and who else can I think of? – but anyway people of that general level.

It was very attractive. As I say, it looked to be an opportunity to, in a way, be part of the early history of an institution that would one day be very well known and perhaps be a great university.

And [there was] GL McClymont, the nutritional biochemist, an outstanding man. And there were a number of others, of course, in the Faculties of Arts and Economics, who were also outstanding men and who were attracted to the idea of contributing to the early development of an outstanding institution.

As the palaeontologist on the staff at Armidale, I too found the absence of other members of staff with similar interests meant that communication with like-minded researchers was very limited. In my case, coming to Canberra to work with people in the Bureau of Mineral Resources and at the Australian National University and in the Institute of Advanced Studies was a tremendous advantage to me. However, you had communication with mining companies, which allowed you to keep your research interests going.

Oh yes, it certainly did. I quickly developed ties with a number of the major Australian mining firms, and I retained the connections that I had made in Canada. Over the years I had very good relations with the mining firms and found the connections very stimulating. The mining companies themselves began to develop research groups with which I interacted. These people were very good in supplying me with material and talking about geological problems. The mining companies were very generous in funding my research, and I must say that they never tried to influence what I did, never imposed their interests on me. Contrary to the impressions of many people, they never asked for their 'pound of flesh'. They were happy that I should simply work on with whatever interested me.

The most interesting and influential and helpful connection I had was with Haddon King, who was director of exploration and research with Zinc Corporation at Broken Hill and, ultimately, CRA (and then, I think, for a little while after it became Rio Tinto.) He was an international figure, very well known and respected, and had a very good research group which I worked along with very happily. They were most helpful, and I look back on my tie with industry as being very fruitful.

Back to top

Establishing a family and a beautiful home

Within about a year of your arrival at the university, you had met and married Alison Meyers, and you bought a small property on the margin of Armidale. Your three children of the marriage are all graduates and continuing with their professional careers. But the house that you built at Armidale is now surrounded by wonderful trees. Your planting and growing of some hundreds of trees has made your old home one of the landmarks of the area. What motivated all this planting?

Yes, I certainly did meet and marry my wife, and we had three children who have all turned out interestingly, professionally. And yes, I did buy a small property just on the edge of Armidale, beginning immediately to do a lot of planting. The reasons for that are probably threefold.

First of all, I come of a very long line of farmers. My family on my mother's side have been farmers continuously for well over 500 years. From my first recorded ancestor I think there are 17 generations of us – I am the first one born off the land – so I have farming very much in my blood, and I've always loved simply growing things.

The second reason may stem from my early years in England. As a youngster I was greatly impressed by some of the beautifully laid out estates and gardens in England, the work of such fine landscape architects as Capability Brown. Indeed, I have since recognised that in a way I was a frustrated landscape architect: landscape architecture is one of the things I'd have loved doing.

I hope the third reason doesn't sound excessively romantic. I've always been interested in creating something beautiful. Keats's words, 'A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: Its loveliness increases' impressed me greatly as quite a small child, and I always wanted to create something that was lovely – for my own enjoyment, for the enjoyment of people close to me, and for the enjoyment of everyone. You say that the place is now a landmark. Well, I think a lot of people know it, and I would like to think that a lot of people enjoy it.

Back to top

A reluctant but highly successful author

In 1966–67 you took sabbatical leave at Harvard, in the United States, and among other things you did there, you began writing your first book, Ore Petrology – a very interesting topic, because it put ore generation in a petrological context. What led you to embark on book writing, and on that subject in particular?

Well, I'd never regarded myself as a book writer. A great-uncle of mine had written a book on the nature of wool, its technology and so on, but the thought of writing a book myself had never entered my head. Then in 1964, when I was in Armidale and well before I went to Harvard, there turned up one day a representative of McGraw-Hill. This is a New York firm but the representative was from its Melbourne office. He said that he'd been told I could write an interesting book. What about it? My response was that I'd never thought of writing a book, I wasn't a book writer, I was a research man and I really wasn't interested in writing a book. So that was that.

He reappeared about six months later and asked whether I had thought any more about writing a book. I said I hadn't. And probably towards the end of 1965 he turned up once again: had I thought any more about it? I said no, I hadn't.

Anyway, early in 1966 I set off for Harvard and began my work there, and in no time I began to receive mail from Armidale redirected to me in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the first or second batch of mail, lo and behold, here was a letter from McGraw-Hill Melbourne to me in Armidale: had I thought any more about writing the book?

Thinking to myself, 'This is the last thing I'm going to bother myself with,' almost in triumph I wrote back a letter saying I was now at Harvard, I was engrossed in research, I had no time to think about writing a book, and I was sorry, but essentially I had no intention of giving any further thought at all to the book. I posted off the letter and thought, 'Well, that's fixed that.'

About 10 days or a fortnight later, there was a knock on my door at Harvard. I said, 'Come in,' and a chappie appeared, said, 'Good afternoon,' and announced that he was a representative of McGraw-Hill in New York! Had I thought any more about writing the book? I didn't know what to do, I was so taken aback. But, after he had visited me two or three times, he managed to persuade me to, well, just try writing two or three chapters of a book. These people are experts in applied psychology and know from long experience that once a person has done that, and found they can do it relatively easily, they are trapped. And that happened to me. I wrote the first three or four chapters, and found this was easy and really very interesting.

By then I'd thought of developing the book in such a way as to bring a new message to ore geology – to bring together some of the thoughts I'd been having on ore types and ore occurrence, and to illustrate that there was a whole range of ore types just as there was a whole range of ordinary rock types, that these various ore types were all the result of readily identifiable petrological processes, each ore type being characteristic of a particular sort of petrological environment, and that in fact the study of ores fell perfectly naturally and well into the study of petrology, the study of rocks in general. So I finished writing the book, and it was a very interesting affair.

McGraw-Hill books at the time were well known to be very expensive, and I told the McGraw-Hill representative I would write the book only if he could guarantee that it would be published at a price that could be afforded by the people that I would write it for. He said, 'Oh well, it could be $15,' which I thought was a bit expensive. It came out at $19.50.

But also I had asked him how many copies he thought it would sell. He said, 'Oh well, it could be 5000,' but to my amazement it sold 18,000! And I have been given to understand that there were about twice that number of complete xerox copies, so probably there are somewhere between 50,000 and 60,000 copies of the book throughout the world. The idea just seemed to catch on, and I think ever since then people have looked at ores in a rather different way.

As a matter of fact, I had a very nice letter from the very famous professor of economic geology at the University of California at Berkeley at that time, one Professor Meyer. He was really the doyen of international economic geology, but he thanked me for writing the book – which I thought was rather quaint – and more particularly said that he thought it had changed the way the world looked at ore deposits. That was perhaps the nicest compliment I could have.

Back to top

From early speculation to recognition of processes

At the same time as all this was going on, you continued your interest in the Solomon Islands, and certainly in volcanic island arc research, particularly in association with JD Bell at Oxford. He had worked with you on the island group of New Georgia in 1959, and you spent two years at Oxford with him during 1978–80. I understand you still continue your association with him.

Yes, in one of those very good connections that one makes from time to time in science. It's another side of science. People think of science as something quite dispassionate, separated from personalities and human affairs, but now and again in the course of being a scientist one finds oneself associated with people that one forms not only a natural scientific connection with but also a very pleasant personal association. And this was the case with David Bell.

We worked together, completely isolated out in the field, in the New Georgia group of the Solomon Islands, for about three months in 1959. He was a very fine Oxford graduate, a very good geologist. He began work as my assistant, in his first job after he'd got his Oxford PhD – or DPhil, as Oxford call them. He was an excellent person to work with technically, but also a very good person to have working with one personally. He was a most amenable person. One could work along with him very easily, discuss things with him very easily.

The work I have done with him has been a very minor part of my work overall, but we have certainly continued on with an unbroken thread of island arc volcanic petrology. It has been very interesting scientifically, and our scientific and personal friendship has continued on in a very spontaneous way for almost 50 years. This is a side of scientific life that a lot of us find very rewarding.

On the basis of that work you have published a second book, Ore Elements in Arc Lavas, published by Oxford University Press. This book connects the work on volcanic massive sulphide ores begun in the Bathurst district, when you were a young PhD student, with your more recent work on the behaviour of the metals in volcanic lavas. Am I correct in thinking that this has been the concluding phase of all that began with that series of coincidences around 1948 to 1950 – your being sent to work in the Bathurst district by Broken Hill South in 1948, hearing a lecture by WR Browne in 1949, and embarking on your first work in the Solomon Islands in 1950?

Well, I'm not sure that I would like to say that it was necessarily the concluding phase. I appreciate that I'm getting pretty ancient, but I hope I still have a little ahead of me! Certainly my work that was incorporated in the book, and my work since, has been an enormous advance on that early work. I have continued on with a line of work that began in those early days. It's been a very fruitful line, and I suppose we have now reached a stage where we can see the whole thing in a much more sophisticated way.

When I first looked at the Bathurst rocks, I speculated on what might have occurred, how the ores might have formed. When I first went to the Solomons, I actually saw in a modern environment how they may have formed, that that particular kind of ore deposit was generated by volcanic hot spring activity in the sedimentary environment in volcanic island arcs.

Hot springs are derived from volcanic melts that exist for long periods of time beneath the surface of volcanic areas, and it is the giving off of gas and liquids from this molten material that eventually gives rise to the hot springs. We say that these volcanic melts, as they rise within the Earth, degas. That is, they lose their gas. And it is these gases that eventually become fumaroles and hot springs.

That degassing, you could say, can be likened to the top being taken off a lemonade bottle or a beer or champagne bottle. As the melt rises within the Earth's crust, beneath the surface of the Earth, the pressure on the melt decreases. This means that the gas that was in solution in the melt begins to bubble off – just as when you take the top of a lemonade bottle, the gas that was dissolved in the lemonade bubbles off and fizzes over. So these volcanic melts, when they rise beneath the surface of the Earth, begin to effervesce, they begin to bubble, and the bubbles rise up through the overlying rocks, eventually to form hot springs.

In some cases these gases, as they bubble through the melt, collect metals from the melt. So one becomes very interested in the processes going on in a melt that is cooling, that is crystallising, and that at the same time is losing some of its gas. This is the work that I've been involved in, I suppose over the last 30 or 40 years, incorporating the work in that book Ore Elements in Arc Lavas. The early work indicated the surface processes, and what I've been concerned with since has been looking at the subterranean processes that ultimately lead to the surface processes that I observed and the formation of ores.

Back to top

Contributions to science and society

In summary, we might reflect on what you consider to be the main contributions you have made to science – and to the wider world of knowledge – by your research. Further, since ore deposits have had major effects on the economy, you might like to comment on the effects your work has had on Australian society and, in fact, the society of the whole world.

Well, I suppose it is often the case with scientists that it is their early work that has been, perhaps, particularly notable and has led on to a large part of the work that they have done through the rest of their professional lives.

I think, looking back, I would have to say that my early recognition of the idea – or of the principle – that many ore deposits formed in association with the development of volcanic island arcs was probably the most important and influential single thing that I ever did. It led on to all sorts of ramifications, of course.

That was a very simple picture. It led on to all sorts of aspects that were very interesting and, of course, much more complex. And it certainly led on to the discovery of enormous quantities of metallic ore.

It would be wrong to say that I was entirely responsible for the latter. Well, certainly the original germ of the idea was mine, but many other people came in after that and contributed. And, of course, through their efforts many new ore deposits were found.

Certainly this has had a very considerable effect on society. If we had not been able to discover new resources as we have been able to, with the efficiency that we have been able to, the industrialisation of society over the last 40 or 50 years could never have taken place. And so, in a very fundamental way, I suppose, that early recognition, that early discovery, has led to substantial effects on the wellbeing and progress of society generally.

That work led on to a lot of observational and experimental work on the microstructures of ores. This was certainly relevant scientifically – it told us a great deal more about the formation of the ores and the way in which they had been affected by subsequent geological events. Certainly our greater understanding of the microstructures of ores enabled us to design methods of treatment of the ores much better. I did a great deal of work on the chemistry of the ores, including their isotopic chemistry, and what this told us about the derivation of the ores.

I suppose my work gradually became more closely related to what one might call material science – the physics and chemistry of materials – than to what we generally think of as field geology.

I suppose it would be close to the truth to say of my science that it was pure science, easily applied. As I often said to my students, of science, 'If it's true, one day it will be useful.' I hope that the work I have done has been close to the truth. I think quite a lot of it has been useful. And I'd like to think that it would lead on to a great deal more science, and that it should be increasingly useful.

Thank you very much, Professor Stanton. I think that's a very good way to end this interview, with the importance of science to all aspects of social organisation at the present time. Thank you very much for your contribution.

Back to top

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science