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Singh, Gurdip (1932–1991)

by Donald Walker

Gurdip Singh, senior fellow in the Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology, RSPacS, since 1974, died suddenly on 9th November; he was 59. He was a leading member of Canberra's Indian Community.

Son of an itinerant railway engineer, Gurdip Singh attended 11 schools during his first 10 years of education. He graduated as a botanist from the Punjab University, then took PhDs from Lucknow and Belfast. Before joining the ANU he held several posts at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Paleobotany, Lucknow. The distinction of his work was variously recognised, for example by his election to one of only 24 Fellowships of the Paleobotanical Society and the award of its medal, by the Stillwell Award of the Geological Society of Australia (with J M Bowler and N D Opdyke) and by a Guest Research Fellowship of the Royal Society of London.

For about 30 years the main focus of Gurdip Singh's research was the Quaternary vegetation history of the world's arid and semi-arid lands. Nobody knew more about this and nobody made as great and individual contribution to it. And wherever he worked, in India, Australia or North America, he stimulated more effort by others, and not only because they disagreed with his conclusions. Amongst other things, he demonstrated that the raw data of his studies could be collected from sites which all his predecessors and most of his contemporaries would have dismissed as simply unworkable. Particularly in Australia and India he will be remembered by colleagues in his field as the one who tackled the seemingly impossible and brought it off.

To his credit, Gurdip Singh's work always had more than a touch of scientific audacity which invariably led to a flurry of criticism of most things he published. But, increasingly, the critics found that he had indeed foreseen most of what troubled them and had already resolved these matters in reaching his own conclusions. The accumulation of more data and the application of other techniques almost always proved him correct. He had a happy knack of getting it right.

Quarternary vegetation history has implications in many other fields, notably those dealing with climatic change and with human cultural development, both of which Gurdip Singh entered with characteristic vigour. Almost a decade ago, for example, as a result of his work at Lake George, he predicted that the human occupation of Australia would prove to be some 120,000 years old, about three times the archaeologically authenticated age at that time. Since then, he gained a lot of amused satisfaction in seeing the gap narrowed by new archaeological finds and new dating methods. There is still a long way to go before the gap is closed but there are many for whom open disbelief has shifted to positive expectation.

Any relaxed discussion with Gurdip Singh was likely to range far beyond the confines of his professional field, drawing on his staggering breadth of knowledge and interests. He bestrode the world. In particular, he had an unusual grasp of the ways in which philosophies and religions had interacted with the more materialistic human ambitions throughout the ages and worldwide. This, in turn, gave him clear and compassionate insights into the condition of modern human societies of all sizes. During the past few years, this kind of thing, and its integration with the facts of environmental change which his own research uncovered, increasingly occupied his mind. One of the many tragedies stemming from his death is that his thoughts on these matters will never be recorded.

Gurdip Singh's passing will cause shock, disbelief and grief to very many people, worldwide. Amongst them, we are lucky, for there remain amongst us his wife and three daughters to whom we extend our best wishes for the years ahead.

Original publication

Citation details

Donald Walker, 'Singh, Gurdip (1932–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 June 2018.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2018

Life Summary [details]




9 November 1991

Cultural Heritage