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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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David Francis Branagan (1930–2022)

by Marty Branagan

Associate Professor David Branagan, who has died aged 91, was one of Australia’s most distinguished geologists, associated with Sydney University for an unprecedented 74 years.

An award-winning academic, field geologist, science historian, athlete and musician, he taught and mentored generations of students and led international science organisations. The author or editor of almost 300 publications, including 20 books, his biography T.W. Edgeworth David: A Life –Geologist, Adventurer, Soldier was a finalist in the 2007 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History.

Branagan’s best-known book was Field Geology of New South Wales (with G. H. Packham), published in four editions over fifty years, which was used by countless geology students at Australian universities and high schools.

Over the years he was: President of the Royal Society of NSW, Chairman of the NSW HSC Board of Studies for Science and Chief Examiner for Geology, President of the International Commission for the History of Geology and foundation editor of the Australian Geologist. In recent years, he was awarded the Sue Tyler Friedman Award from the Geological Society of London, and the Tikhomirov Award for the History of Geology.

Born in Broken Hill in 1930 to Francis Branagan, a TAFE maths teacher, and music teacher Winifred (née King), the family shifted to Sydney where David studied at St Ignatius College on a scholarship and bought books with his lunch-money of sixpence.

He commenced studies at Sydney University in 1946, aged sixteen, completing his BSc, MSc and PhD on coal formation and utilisation in NSW. An enthusiastic participant in extracurricular activities, he gained a double blue for Athletics, won the NSW Junior two miles in 1949 and represented NSW in athletics, racing against - and occasionally beating - future Olympians. He sometimes cycled with friends from Chatswood to the Blue Mountains and, once, to Melbourne. He was a founding member of Sydney University’s Speleological Society (the study of caves).

He began his career working as a field geologist in regional NSW, central Australia and north-west Queensland. He topped the NSW south coast bowling with his medium-pacers one season, and played fullback in the mining town Cloncurry, recalling ‘Ma’ Katter (a relative of Bob), racing from the sidelines with an umbrella to whack anyone who tackled her son.

Meeting his wife of 65 years, Gillian Robinson, at the university Musical Society, they courted while playing duets of Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba. He possessed a fine baritone voice of impressive range and timbre, equally suited to solo and ensemble work (his sister was accomplished soprano Mary Branagan). Pursuing a dream of professional singing, he travelled to London in 1955 and performed there with small vocal groups in opera productions.

He taught secondary school science and worked in photo-geological interpretation with Hunting Geological Services, regarded as the world’s best map group. When Prince Phillip visited his workplace and asked how he liked London, David responded: ‘It’s not so bloody hot here, is it?’

He married Gillian in London’s Brompton Oratory in 1956 and on his return to Australia, obtained a research fellowship in Sydney University’s Department of Geology and Geophysics. He became an associate professor specialising in civil and mining engineering geology, field mapping, and the Sydney basin and often appeared in the NSW Courts as an expert witness.

When the family travelled in the car David would give the children a map which, as it turned out, was usually a geological map 40 years old. The geology hadn’t changed much but whole new cities had arisen meanwhile.

An incorrigible punster, he brought a sense of humour to the department, characterised by membership of the spoof ‘Stop Continental Drift Society’.

Former students sometimes rescued him from difficulties, such as at Singapore airport where his rock-filled luggage greatly exceeded the weight limit. When a helicopter landed while he had students examining a live volcano in New Zealand, he was greeted not with arrest but a cheery ‘Gidday, Dave!’

Geology seemed a mysterious and exciting world about deep time, involving expeditions into wild and rugged landscapes, on which his children sometimes joined him, jolting along in noisy Land Rovers, visiting mining ghost towns and stopping at every second road cutting.

Surprises included him giving a conference paper in German, answering a reporter in French, or including bawdy slides of suggestive landforms in a lecture. His office, finally cleared out in 2020, was like the aftermath of an earthquake.

He remained musically active, forming and conducting for thirty years the semi-professional choir St Gregory Chorale, which recorded for the ABC and performed at St Mary’s Cathedral, where he continued to sing until recently. For decades he played organ at St Philip Neri, Northbridge, was editor of Hosanna: Journal of Church Music/Liturgy, and promoted the repertoire of sacred polyphony.

He helped rescue passengers from a sinking Pittwater ferry in the 1990s. He assisted the conservationist Colong Foundation, was active in sports organisations, and swam daily at Northbridge baths until 2019. He coached rugby and athletics at St Aloysius College, which his four sons attended, and where he opposed compulsory cadets on moral grounds. He built a sailboat and taught his children to sail.

After retiring in 1989 ‘to get some work done’, he continued to research, organise international conferences, and present papers, producing a documentary film Ngauruhoe Erupts and scores more publications, including on such diverse topics as Aboriginal star maps, and the geological backgrounds of famous artworks.

In 2006 his life-long achievements were recognised when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Sydney University. The citation read that ‘he was amongst Australia’s foremost geologists with an international reputation in the history of geology and geologists in Australasia, a field in which he has made outstanding and original contributions for over fifty years.’ This was followed by an Order of Australia in 2018 for ‘significant service’ to the geological sciences, professional groups, and the community, service driven by his energy, ability, passion, curiosity and immense joie de vivre.

He died in Chatswood in January and is survived by Gillian, sister Mary and children Chris, Shaun, Marty, Lesley and Liam.

Original publication

View the list of ADB articles written by David Francis Branagan

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Marty Branagan, 'Branagan, David Francis (1930–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia


9 January, 2022 (aged ~ 92)