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Dorothy Hill (1907–1997)

by Ken Campbell

Dorothy Hill, by Edna Hill, 1964

Dorothy Hill, by Edna Hill, 1964

University of Queensland Library, 425587

Dorothy Hill, who in 1960 became the first woman to hold a full professorship at an Australian university, made distinguished contributions to her country in the fields of teaching, research, administration, general cultural activity, defence and sport.

However, it was among geologists and especially palaeontologists that she was acknowledged as an outstanding Australian. When Australian geology was just coming into its own, her name was often one of the very few known to overseas workers in the field.

Born in Brisbane in 1907, she attended the Brisbane Girls Grammar School, where she had a distinguished academic and sporting career before winning an open scholarship to the University of Queensland. Having a scientific bent and a strong social conscience, she had hoped to study medicine, but because of family circumstances she had to accept her second choice, enrolling in the faculty of science. In her first year she took a course in geology and was soon committed to the field. In 1928 she graduated with first-class honours and a university medal, the first woman in the university to do so.

No cloistered student, she took an active interest in athletics and won an Australian universities blue for hockey. She was awarded a travelling scholarship to Cambridge University to study for the doctor of philosophy degree. Before World War II, such a progression to Oxbridge was de rigueur for Australians wishing to pursue a career in science — no PhDs were on offer in this country.

The impact of Cambridge on Hill was profound. The university was at the zenith of its scientific achievement and colonials such as Lord Ernest Rutherford were to the fore. She learned methods of research, a breadth of scientific perception, the importance of a good critical appreciation, the necessity of a good research library and the value of competent scientific colleagues.

In personal notes Hill recorded the development of her appreciation of aspects of culture such as drama and architecture, which had been denied her in the Brisbane of the 1920s. She remained active in sport and even earned a class A pilot's licence.

Her chosen field was palaeontology. During trips in Queensland she had noted ancient reefs with corals around Mundubbera and this had fired her imagination. She chose to study the variety of Palaeozoic corals in Britain and continental Europe, and quickly established international preeminence in the field, a fact that was recognised by election to a fellowship at Newnham College.

She would have liked to remain with the intellectual stimulus of Cambridge, but the climate of the Fens was affecting her health and she longed to contribute to the development of a strong research university in Queensland. She applied for a research grant offered by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and so in 1937 returned to the University of Queensland.

After the outbreak of World War II, Hill enlisted in the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service in 1942 and became a second officer on the RAN Operations Staff, working on codes and ciphers in the office of the naval officer in charge of HMAS Moreton. This was a responsible task, as a great deal of war material for the Allied forces was passing through eastern Australian ports and Moreton was one of the more significant bases.

In 1945 she was demobbed and returned the next year to her temporary research post at the university. Shortly afterwards she was made a temporary lecturer in historical geology, specialising in palaeontology. Thus began a major contribution to education and research that would continue until the mid-1980s.

Hill was the kind of teacher who led by example — her students could expect to be pushed to the limit, but with support all the way. The honours course involved no lectures but every day each of her students had a visit with their lecturer. If a new topic were to be investigated, she did not just tell the student to get on with it; she involved herself so that she could provide detailed, informed guidance.

During this period Hill was winning international repute for her research on Australian Palaeozoic corals, building on work begun in Cambridge. When research in Australian universities was at a very low ebb, and the University of Queensland was among the poorer performers even in this undistinguished company, she insisted that good teaching and good research went hand in hand. The best method for developing an inquiring mind was to confront it with real problems and then provide it with appropriate intellectual tools. She did not doubt that the primary function of university teaching was to develop inquiring minds and not just to pass on accepted knowledge. In this she was well ahead of the administrators of her day and, indeed, of the bureaucrats who seek to determine the agenda for universities today.

In the 1950s she won recognition through a continuous stream of publications in local and overseas journals. She was a co-author of the volume on corals for the Anglo-American sponsored International Treatise on Invertebrate Palaeontology — later expanded into a two-volume work, of which she was sole author. She also published a monograph on an enigmatic reefforming Cambrian group, the archaeocyathids, also contributing a volume on this topic to the ITIP.

In 1956 she became the first female fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. In 1965 she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London — the highest scientific accolade, apart from a Nobel Prize, that can be awarded to a Commonwealth scientist. She was the first Australian woman to be so honoured.

Within the university, promotion had come slowly, a matter of some concern to her. When the chair of geology became vacant she was disappointed not to be chosen, but in 1959 her achievements were recognised with her appointment to a research professorship. On her retirement in 1972, the university created the Dorothy Hill chair of palaeontology and stratigraphy in her honour.

Hill was generous with her time, playing a leading role in the foundation of the Queensland Palaeontographical Society, which in 1974 became part of the now-flourishing Association of Australasian Palaeontologists. Always conscious of the importance of maintaining access to the primary world literature in her field, she accumulated a vast collection that she made available to interested researchers. She also pressed for the creation of a comprehensive collection for the geology department. This was designated the Dorothy Hill Library in 1975.

Her attention was not narrowly focused on palaeontology. In 1948 she promoted the preparation of the geological map of Queensland, a joint venture with the State Geological Survey. During research leading to the first edition of this map in 1952 she developed an integrated model of Queensland geology; this led in 1960 to her co-editing The Geology of Queensland, a production of the Geological Society of Australia. These two achievements influenced much subsequent thinking on eastern Australian geology. The other sciences also benefited from her wide interest in the natural world — she was active in supporting the Great Barrier Reef Committee, becoming its secretary in 1946.

Hill was keen to take her share of administrative responsibility in the university and in the profession. In 1970 she was elected the first female president of the Australian Academy of Science and remains the only woman ever to hold that post. The next year she became president of her university's professorial board — the first woman to hold such a position in an Australian university. For her work in education and the wider community, she was made a CBE in 1971 and AC in 1993. In 1983 she was awarded the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science Medal.

In her personal life she was totally without ostentation, living quietly and modestly but gracefully accepting the many accolades that came unbidden. She felt herself to be in a position of responsibility through no special virtue of her own, and quietly offered her gifts for the betterment of society through education, welfare, sport and scientific research.

Despite her many achievements, she was always approachable and friendly, and to the end of her teaching career attracted students by the warmth of her personality as much as by her academic reputation. Included in Professor Malcolm Thomis's book on the first 75 years of the University of Queensland is a photograph of Hill addressing the new students for 1971. The girls in the front row are all in the miniskirts of the period and an outsider might wonder what went through their minds as they listened to this venerable lady who, as tradition demanded of the president of the professorial board, was clad in full academic regalia during the heat of a Queensland summer. But it is safe to assume from the intent look on their faces that Hill had the students in the palm of her hand by the force of her personality and her obvious interest in their future.

Hill's influence would be felt in the lives of all those with whom she interacted and in the inspiration she offered the women of her native State. The nature of her primary field of endeavour means her name is not as well known as those such as Mary Gilmore, Caroline Chisholm or Leonie Kramer, but she stands among them as one of the most eminent women Australia has produced.

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Citation details

Ken Campbell, 'Hill, Dorothy (1907–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Dorothy Hill, by Edna Hill, 1964

Dorothy Hill, by Edna Hill, 1964

University of Queensland Library, 425587

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Life Summary [details]


10 September, 1907
Taringa, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


23 April, 1997 (aged 89)
Corinda, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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