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Campbell, Kenton S. (Ken) (1927–2017)

by Patrick de Deckker and Tony Eggleton

Ken Campbell, n.d.

Ken Campbell, n.d.

ANU Archives, 1885/12903

Professor Kenton S.W. Campbell died in the early hours of Saturday June 17. Ken retired from the ANU in the late 1980s, but remained an ANU Emeritus Professor, first in the Geology Department before eventually becoming associated with the Research School of Earth Sciences. He continued to actively conduct research on Palaeozoic fishes and was still working on a manuscript a few days before his death.

Ken was a student of Professor Dorothy Hill at the University of Queensland. He commenced his teaching and research career at the University of New England before being appointed in 1961 by Professor David Brown, the Foundation Professor of Geology at the ANU, to teach palaeontology. After Brown’s retirement in 1976, Ken was appointed Departmental Head for three years, and later spent two years as Dean of the Science Faculty. Ken was promoted to Professor in 1983 and returned to the post of Departmental Head that year until his retirement in 1988. He was, as Professor and Head of Department, strongly supportive of his staff; considerate, even-handed in management and proactive in promotions.

Ken’s vast scientific output, distinguished for the breadth and depth of his research into vertebrate palaeontology, early evolution and Palaeozoic stratigraphy, saw him elected to the Australian Academy of Science in 1983. He worked with fossils that are 300–400 million years old and had several named after him, including Kenichthys campbelli, which was found in China. He received many prestigious awards and prizes for his work, including the Academy’s Mawson Medal and Lecture (1986), the Geological Society of Australia WR Browne Medal (2006) and the Royal Society of NSW Clarke Medal in 2010. In 2013, he was the first Australian working in Australia to receive the prestigious RC Moore medal for Excellence in Palaeontology from the US Society for Sedimentary Geology. His nomination for that award carried the citation: ‘The extraordinary breadth and global significance of your research achievements, your diverse international collaborations, and the exceptional scientific progeny your teachings have spawned all qualify you for this appropriate honour.’

Ken was also a foundation member of the Australasian Palaeontological Association and a founding member of the journal Alcheringa: An Australasian Journal of Palaeontology.

Ken Campbell had a long-term and very productive association with the zoologist Dr Dick Barwick who had joined the Geology Department after his retirement. These two researchers formed a perfect match when studying fossil lungfish and produced numerous joint papers on material from the Gogo Formation in Western Australia, and close to home from near Burrinjuck. Their investigations have placed those two locations on key maps dealing with fish evolution and morphology. Their more recent association with Professor Tim Senden from RSPhySE opened new views into cranial morphologies of lungfish through the use of 3D imaging produced in Tim’s laboratory.

During his professional career, Ken Campbell insisted that to have a good knowledge of the biology of organisms was vital to the understanding of the form and function of fossils, one example is his paper on trilobite vision. He believed also that the sediments in which fossils were found provided many clues to the palaeoecology of the organisms. More recently, Ken became very interested in the role of gene regulation and the evolution of organisms linked to broad climate changes in the Palaeozoic. Ken was never short of ideas.

Ken Campbell had a highly deserved reputation as a very dedicated teacher, and many Geology Department alumni have acknowledged Ken’s influence on their career in geology, including geological mapping, which he insisted was a fundamental necessity in order to become an ‘all-rounded’ geologist. In recognition of that central part of his university life, every year, the school—to follow a tradition started in the Geology Department—awards the ‘Ken Campbell Teaching Award’ to a person recognised for making an outstanding contribution to teaching.

* The transcript of an interview of Professor K.S.W. Campbell FAA is available at the Australian Academy of Science’s website:

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Citation details

Patrick de Deckker and Tony Eggleton, 'Campbell, Kenton S. (Ken) (1927–2017)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 9 August 2022.

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