Professor Sam Carey, geologist

Professor Sam CareyProfessor Sam Carey received a DSc from the University of Sydney in 1939 for his work on the tectonic evolution of New Guinea and Melanesia. He worked in the petroleum industry in New Guinea and then served with the Australian Infantry Forces from 1942-44. After the war he became chief government geologist in Tasmania and later was appointed foundation professor of geology at the University of Tasmania.

Carey supported the theory of continental drift, explaining the movement of the continents through a model in which oceanic crust was formed at mid-ocean ridges and old oceanic crust underwent subduction at deep ocean trenches. The University of Tasmania became a leading university in tectonics and in 1957 he organised the Continental Drift Symposium, which influenced many scientists about the importance of continental drift.

More information about Professor Carey is available on the Academy's website at Biographical memoirs - Samuel Warren Carey, 1911-2002.

Interviewed by Professor Pat Quilty in 2000.


Background and education

Professor Carey, could you tell us a little bit about your family background and perhaps your schooling?

My father was a printer, but he went overseas and became a public lecturer. My mother was born in Australia, of Australian ancestry. I had two sisters and four brothers. One brother was killed by the Japanese during the war.

We lived on a farm three or four miles out of Campbelltown, in New South Wales, and when I started school I had to walk three and a half miles to get there and then walk back again – right from the age of five.

So you were fit from a very early age?

Well, I was fit enough to walk to school and back every day, until we moved almost into the centre of town.

Your interest in science was initially in the area of physics. What was it that got you interested in science, and when was that?

I was interested in science all through high school, because of a good science teacher. In fact, he was teaching physics. The system was that at school you could do physics or chemistry but not both, but I went to university intending to do physics and chemistry. And, although I went there with no chemistry whatsoever, I came top in first year.

To enrol in science at university I had to do mathematics, of course, but I didn’t have a fourth subject. When I asked my physics teacher what to do for a fourth subject, he said, ‘Well, try geology. I did geology under Professor Edgeworth David and I enjoyed it very much.’ I thought, ‘What’s geology?’ but I enrolled in it – and I came top that year!

As the years went by, you were very strong on the role of physics in geology. What changed you from physics itself?

I had no idea of becoming a geologist when I went to university, but I think it was the fieldwork – in geology, it interleaved with the lab work – which caught me. I enjoyed fieldwork, which you didn’t do in physics and chemistry, of course. By the end of first year I had no doubt about it: I was going to be a geologist, a rock-hopper.

What were some of your successes at the University of Sydney?

One of the things I started was the student geology club, the first one in Australia. They then moved for them in all universities. I suppose you could say I was a leader among students.

I understand that when you were going through university you didn’t have a great deal of money, and you took on some other activities to tide you over financially.

I did about 16 hours coaching a week.

Wasn’t there also a role as a magician there somewhere?

That’s right, I used to give magic shows. And they were well paid.

I remember an occasion when my wife Helen and I were going out for dinner one Friday night. We came into your room at the university with our two little boys, who were about five and three. They had been told to behave themselves and sit quietly, but you must have noticed that they were behaving too well. You pulled coins out of their ears and within five minutes the kids were out of control.

The coins would have been shillings. I loved pulling money out of ears, especially my own ear.

Back to top

Memories of Edgeworth David and Mawson

What memories do you have of Edgeworth David? I noticed you always had a photograph of him in your room at the university.

I knew him quite well and saw a lot of him. When I formed the student geological club I invited him to give the inaugural lecture, which he did. He was already so famous that the theatre overflowed. Several rows of extra seats were brought in. And he came to inspect my rocks when I brought them back from fieldwork, to make sure I had identified them correctly and see how they correlated with others he was working on. David was a very gentle man, very kind and not obtrusive in any way. He wasn’t a big, bull-at-a-gate sort of man at all.

I wonder how David and Mawson would have got on. They were very different personalities. Did you ever meet Mawson?

Oh yes, I knew Mawson quite well. He was one of David’s students, and they would have got on perfectly well. The first time Mawson went to the Pole it was under David, who had gone to the Pole and then asked Mawson to take over, halfway through. Of course, David was a much older man. One of the strange things was that, as dominant a man as Mawson was and as dominant a woman as his wife was, they clicked perfectly – never any quarrels. They always got on very beautifully, although they were so obviously both leaders and obviously different.

Back to top

Flotsam: drifting continents and a wayward thesis

When you graduated, you went to New Guinea and got involved in tectonics. Why?

Why New Guinea? I had no intentions of that. I intended to go to Cambridge after I had got my Master of Science. But when I was halfway through my year, G.A.V. Stanley turned up from New Guinea, looking for recruits. The only one that was available besides me was scared of the idea of going to New Guinea – he wouldn’t go. So the Professor said, ‘Well, there’s only one other man, that’s Carey. Try him.’ When I said, ‘Oh well, I’m going to Cambridge,’ Stanley said, ‘Come down to our office and look at our maps.’ I went down and looked at all the maps and things they were doing with the natives and so forth – and I was converted. I came home that night to tell my mother I was going to New Guinea.

In New Guinea I was doing ordinary fieldwork, mapping on streams, which were the only place you could get good outcrops. We had another team with a surveyor who worked on the ridges, but my work in New Guinea was entirely in the rivers. I had no idea then of going into tectonics as such; I was just mapping geology, a geologist pure and simple. I hadn’t worked out that I was interested in the tectonics in New Guinea. When I came back I started working on that.

When did you graduate with your Masters degree, and then your Doctorate?

I graduated in the minimum time for Masters – and minimum time for the Doctorate. Nobody has had a doctorate granted in Sydney, even since, in such a short time from graduation. There was no supervisor of any kind for my DSc. People who go for a doctorate now at university have a supervisor. I wrote my DSc thesis entirely myself. I paid a typist – she was very good, actually – and a draughtsman, and paid for my own thesis.

I thought I’d lost the thesis. Because I was writing on New Guinea, they wanted somebody who knew something about it as one of the examiners. They appointed a Dutchman who had worked all his life in New Guinea and in Timor, mainly. My thesis went to him by sea all the way to Holland, but when it got there he was in Timor. So it went by sea all the way back to Timor. By the time it got there, he was in Jakarta – Batavia as it was then – and so it went by sea all the way to Jakarta. And eventually it had to go back to Holland to catch him. But once you’ve appointed an examiner, he is the examiner.

I’d gone back to New Guinea, assuming that I had failed. But in 1938, after about 18 months, after those months of my thesis travelling backwards and forwards across the seas, I heard that my DSc had been granted.

How many examiners did you have?

There were just three examiners: Dr Woolnough, from Western Australia, this man from Holland, and the head of my department, Leo Cotton. He was a good man.

A very famous name in Australian science. How did you make that step from being a field geologist to going into a DSc and an interest in tectonics?

Well, the war pulled me out of New Guinea. All the women were evacuated, and every male in New Guinea had to enlist in the Army, but I and one other were sent back to work on rocks in the Gulf of Papua, looking for oil. It was thought that we might be cut off from American oil, and so we weren’t allowed to enlist. The rocks that we were working on were the ones that finally produced oil, but not there, further up on the highlands – in the same beds, but slightly different facies.

Back to top

Friend or foe?

You did get involved in the war, becoming a bit of hero as one of the Commandos.

I was no hero. I ended up in Z Special Unit, whose job was to work deep behind the lines. Z was a thousand miles further north of the fighting; it would go along ahead of the front line. But McArthur had come from some other islands up there, had been kicked out of them. He had the island-hopping idea: he was all for going north, right up to Japan – so he changed the pattern of things. He would hop ahead, and once he started doing that, he made Z redundant. I resigned before the end of the war, because Z was no longer needed.

Tell us about putting dummy limpet mines on the American fleet when you were in Z.

That was in Cairns. A limpet is a charge attached to a magnet. The Americans didn’t believe in limpets, but oh, we’d show them that they worked. So we did the lot. Afterwards, the Admiral invited me to come aboard in the evening with such of my officers as I chose. Two other officers and I went aboard. Of course, we’d limpeted every one of his ships, and they would have been dead – sunk – by dawn. But he said, ‘Oh, you didn’t do anything. You couldn’t attach on my ship.’ ‘Oh, couldn’t we?’ I called Captain Cardew, who, being military, responded, ‘Sir!’ and introduced him: ‘My good friend, my 2IC.’ I said, ‘You personally limpeted this ship last night?’ ‘Sir!’ ‘Have you got anything for the Admiral?’ So he went down and de-limpeted the Admiral’s ship while he watched! We had wonderful fun out of that.

There was a lot of activity in science following the war, with a rush of key papers on geology being written in the early 1950s; for example, Anderson’s application of gravity to the classification of faults, and your own rheidity, folding, continental reconstructions. Would these ideas have been going over in your mind, and other serving people’s minds, during the war?

I expect so, but I wasn’t aware of it. I never thought positively about it. You can be unaware of things that are happening in your thinking. They don’t come right to the surface, but they’re still bubbling along in your mind.

Back to top

Setting a southern course for geology

Near the end of the war, in 1944, you went to Tasmania. Where were you when you applied for the job there?

I was in Melbourne. I resigned from the Army to become Chief Government Geologist in Tasmania. There was an advertisement and I just applied for the job.

While I was Chief Government Geologist, I was appointed to the University of Tasmania's Faculty of Science as an external member, with no idea I would ever become a professor myself. There was no geology department then, or geophysics or anything like that, and I advocated the start of a geology school in the university. When eventually a school was started, in 1946, I applied for the Chair but without any illusions that I would get it. But I did get it and was the first Professor of Geology and Geography.

Geography was part of my department for a couple of years. A lot of school-children did geography to avoid mathematics, so there was a heavy enrolment and eventually geography was separated out. The man who had been my lecturer in geography, Peter Scott, resigned when they announced there was going to be a Department of Geography, so that he could apply from outside. He became the first professor. But he would have been even if he had not resigned, because I was on the selection committee and I knew he was a good man who could lecture well. He had plenty of ability. There was a big field. I think five of those people who were applicants at that time later became professors.

As Chief Government Geologist and then at the University of Tasmania, how did you work with the bureaucracy?

I had no problems, I just fitted in. That didn’t worry me.

Being an independent thinker, did you sometimes have problems with them?

I did what I wanted to! I set the rules.

You were at the university during some of its very turbulent years.

I didn’t know very much about the turbulence at first, because I was down at Sandy Bay and the main university was up at the Domain.

Between 1948 and 1965, the university did change quite dramatically, didn’t it?

Well, it grew, and shifted entirely to Sandy Bay. But I wasn’t deeply concerned about matters of staff appointments or the university’s reputation outside. I just made sure that the Department of Geology and Geography ran well. The two were together then.

Back to top

Attracting attention to tectonics

You were interested in tectonics in the 1930s, and in Tasmania that became your specialty. Would you like to tell us a bit about the people you attracted to tectonics, people whose minds you changed?

I don’t know whose minds I changed. I know some have changed mine. A person who greatly affected me was Harry Hess, a professor from Yale. He came to Tasmania for the International Symposium I had conceived and organised and invited me to go to Yale. I had a year as professor at Yale, and during that time I lectured at practically every other university in the United States – I’d been invited around.

And then you attracted some students from Yale to Tasmania.

Yes, a few came – Kugler, Jan Smith, some others.

Tasmania was, because of your influence, a leading university in tectonics. In 1957 you had the Continental Drift Symposium. Would you like to talk about how you put that symposium together and some of the people you brought to it?

Oh well, I thought it was the right time to have a symposium on structural geology and tectonics, and we had one. Some people wanted to come but couldn’t. An important man who did come was Longwell, from Yale. That resulted in my being invited to Yale as professor.

That symposium was very, very important. By pulling all of those people together, you started to have an influence in tectonics on the rest of the world. The English-speaking world had not really taken on the idea of continental drift.

They did then. The symposium is still quite heavily quoted, and they made reprints of the volumes – just recently, another reprint.

Back to top

Dropping anchor in the right place

Of the main characters who came to that 1957 meeting, you’ve referred to Chester Longwell. Was Tuzo Wilson there? I think you had a big influence on him.

He was invited to the meeting but I don’t think he was there. I probably did have an influence on him. He resented it at first and we quarrelled academically on a number of things. But he came round.

Another important person you met was Lewis Weeks, at Princeton University. It was Weeks who put Esso and BHP on to the exploration in Gippsland Basin, which has contributed enormously to Australia’s oil and gas production. He has said that you drew a map of projected anticlines out into Gippsland Basin for him in 1959.

I remember Lewis Weeks very well. I certainly influenced him, and he influenced me.

It is important for professors to know the leaders in other universities, so they can send their students there, but a lot of our professors don’t. They haven’t been there themselves. I don’t know how you can arrange for university men to go round the other universities and see what they are doing. They do so now via literature.

You must have had many opportunities to move to other parts of the world.

Yes, I’ve had many. I was invited to go to Yale, Princeton and California, and perhaps I should have. But no, when I came to the University of Tasmania I said in my application, ‘If I’m appointed, I will not be tempted to go anywhere else.’ And I have stuck to that.

Tasmania has benefited greatly from it. What do you think are some of the advantages of being in a university in a small, isolated state like Tasmania?

I don’t think it’s got any advantages, particularly – unless you make them.

So how did you generate the advantage of being here?

Oh, I don’t know – just by inspiring students.

That has been one of the really strong points in your career. You were very effective in attracting good students to geology, with an unusually high recruitment rate from first year into second year. Why do you think that was?

They must have liked the subject. Anyway, there hadn’t been a geology department and they wanted to get away from mathematics!

I think it is fair to say that you and the staff you recruited were responsible for the very good reputation for geology which your university had, right around Australia.

Perhaps, yes. And Tasmania had a good variety of rocks around, compared with poor old Sydney or Brisbane.

A question of best fit: the expanding Earth

The other thing that you’ve done – and you’re still a bit of a rebel in this regard – is to propose the question of the expanding Earth.

No longer a rebel – they now believe it! At least, they all will eventually. It takes some people a while to catch up.

What made you think of an expanding Earth as the explanation for what you saw? Was it purely that you were fitting the continents together and it didn’t fit?

Well, I put the continents together and there was a big hole. I had to have that or more than half the world as ocean. It seemed to be a better solution, because there was a great area where I believed the edges of those things belonged to each other, across the Pacific. And the north Pacific had rims which belonged to each other.

Back to top

Valued recognition and the art of recommendation

You retired in 1976, roughly 24 years ago.

Correction: I was retired.

Okay – through the bureaucracy again. What have you been doing with yourself since? 24 years is almost time for another career.

I agree with you there. I am still a member of all the societies and get all their journals, which I read. I don’t throw them away after that; I present them to the university. In fact, quite a number of journals that the university have been getting for years are ones I’ve given to them. They haven’t subscribed. They’ll have to subscribe when I peg out!

During your career you’ve received many awards and been recognised by many different geological societies. Which are the awards that you value most?

I don’t know. There was the Geological Society of London, the Geological Society of India, where I was quoted quite a bit. I have travelled there and had quite a lot of Indian students. As to which I value most – the Geological Society of Australia, probably. I was there when that was first formed.

One of those Indian students was Ahmad, who played a role in a paper – now regarded as a classic – which you wrote on glacial marine sedimentation. In it you referred to Prydz Bay, in Antarctica, as an example of the environment that probably existed during some of the Permian sedimentation in Tasmania. What was Ahmad’s role in that study?

He was my student. I used to advise him perhaps every day. We had long discussions and that came out of them.

You maintained very close ties with industry, in both minerals and petroleum. It was very important to the careers of many young geologists that you recommended them to the various companies.

That’s right. I’d been in petroleum for years in New Guinea and also here, and so it was natural that I still had connections with these companies, and that was an advantage. I had been President of the Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. My background had been through the companies entirely. I started off with Oil Search Ltd – it’s still going now – and I was one of their geologists for a good number of years. I’ve always had contact with the industry. I agree that it was important because I could write to Mr X, in charge of that industry, ‘Such and such a student is a good man.’

It must have been difficult on occasions, though, because industry would have asked you for opinions about some students that weren’t necessarily your highest flyers. How did you handle those difficult situations?

Oh, I would give an honest assessment of their good points. If companies were very careful they would really look for omissions in my statements. The statements would be only of people’s good points, but if you hunted you’d find omissions. That’s the only way to deal with that. You can’t raise it, it’s not to the student’s advantage, but you omit saying anything about it.

You accepted Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Science a long time after it was first offered to you.

Yes. They invited me to become a Fellow but I was in disagreement with them about something I had done. But a good many years later, when they invited me again to become a Fellow, I accepted.

I would just like to say, as one who worked with you in the 1960s and who has kept in contact with you since – as many of your students have – that we look back with a great deal of affection to the role of Professor Carey in our lives. Thank you very much for your efforts this morning.

Thank you. Glad to help if I can. I was fond of my students at times. I tried to help them if I could.

And you were very successful.

Back to top

© 2023 Australian Academy of Science