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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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John Michael Chappell (1940–2018)

by Brad Pillans

John Michael Arthur Chappell was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and studied geology at the University of Auckland, where he completed an MSc with first-class honours in 1964. The following year, he enrolled as a PhD student in the Geology Department at ANU, and in 1967 he was appointed to a Lectureship in the Department of Geography, where he taught as a Lecturer, Senior Lecturer and Reader until 1979. Publications from his PhD thesis, completed in 1973, on coral terraces in New Guinea, earned him an international reputation in the field of sea level and climate change over the last few hundred thousand years.

During his time in the Geography Department, John managed to balance a full undergraduate teaching load with supervision of several PhD students, as well as publishing a series of ground-breaking papers arising from his own research. Despite the increasing workload, John remained generous with his time when mentoring students, which became a hallmark of his whole career.

In 1979, John was appointed as a Professorial Fellow in the Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology in the (then) Research School of Pacific Studies (later, RSPAS) and, in 1998, during restructuring in RSPAS, he transferred to the Research School of Earth Sciences, where he remained until his retirement in 2005. In 2008, he and his wife, Helen, moved to Dunedin, a city that John described as ‘the least spoiled city in New Zealand’, where he was able to indulge his passion for sailing, until he died in 2018.

John was a true polymath, aided by his prodigious memory. There were times when he could recall details as if he was reading them from a book. No topic seemed too difficult for him to understand, dissect and explain. As a result, he was a highly valued colleague of many across the ANU campus, not only within the geosciences, but also in archaeology, human geography, strategic and defence studies, history and the School of Art. An intellect such as John’s can sometimes be intimidating to others less capable, but that was never the case with John—he shared his insights freely and easily with all who wished to learn from him.

In 1992, John was elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. At a one-day symposium at the Academy, in 2008, to mark his retirement, colleagues from many disciplines paid tribute to his remarkable career.

Afterwards, John’s son, Louis, remarked ‘we [the family] never knew how famous dad was’. This remark perfectly encapsulated John’s lack of self-promotion—he didn’t care to talk up his achievements—he just got on with the job.

John Chappell is sorely missed by many colleagues and former students. He is survived by his wife Helen and five children: Samantha, Gwenhyfar (Zoe), Anna, Louis and Bridget.

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Citation details

Brad Pillans, 'Chappell, John Michael (1940–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 April, 1940
Auckland, New Zealand


3 October, 2018 (aged 78)
Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand

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