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Hill, Robert Ian (1953–1992)

by Geoff Davies

Dr Robert Hill of the Research School of Earth Sciences died suddenly on 25 July, aged 38.

A large group gathered on 29 July for a funeral service at which several speakers honoured his memory with sadness and affection.

There are many who grieve Robert Hill's passing: family and close friends, colleagues here and abroad, academics, administrators, journalists, members of parliament and government. The diversity of his friends and the affection and respect with which they remember him are measures of an unusual person.

He was quietly spoken and even tempered, but he brought a disciplined passion to a wide range of activities. He was severely critical of things he disapproved of, but maintained a warmth and humour in his dealings with allies and adversaries alike. He had ideals, but he also acted, often to great effect. Above all he was generous with his time, with his knowledge and with his regard for his fellows.

Robert Hill was a scientist, a geologist, but he was also a citizen of the University, his country and the world, and he took the responsibilities of citizenship unusually seriously. He will be widely remembered for his writings in the popular press on issues concerning science and society.

Fewer will be aware of his promotion of the health and excellence of the University and of higher education in general. He had a love of the bush complemented by a clear-headed concern for the health of the physical environment. Some of his activities gave him a high profile, but in others he was quiet and self-effacing. He was no prima donna.

Robert obtained a first-class honours degree from the ANU Geology Department in 1976. One of his outstanding traits was clearly evident by the time he graduated, in that he had already acquired a voluminous knowledge of Australian geology. Through the rest of his short life he accumulated a vast store of information on diverse topics that was the basis of his most important achievements. He shared this knowledge freely and was himself an important resource for many colleagues.

Robert's scientific work ranged from the detailed to the comprehensive, and from the fundamental to the practical, but was marked always by an unusual perception of the larger context and implications of the work. He obtained a PhD from Caltech in 1984 and went on to be a research associate at Cambridge, a research fellow in RSES and finally a Queen Elizabeth II Fellow in RSES.

His PhD research was on the dynamic processes involved in the intrusion of magma into the crust. Later he studied the sources of deep crustal fluids, the occurrence of oil and gas deposits, the geological setting of ore bodies and the processes that formed and modified the continental crust. In two recent papers he suggested how continental breakup and many other features of the continental crust that occur away from the boundaries of tectonic plates may be due to the influence of 'plumes' rising from deep in the earth's mantle.

A reviewer of the latter work commented that it was full of novel and stimulating insights. Several of Robert's papers have opened important new avenues that many others will explore, and they will stand as monuments to his scientific accomplishments and vision.

The University as a whole is in Robert's debt. He has been publicly credited with being a primary catalyst in the creation of the University's very successful exhibition of ANU science achievements entitled Commitment to Discovery.

He was subsequently invited to work in the Chancelry helping with the development of proposals for the Cooperative Research Centres program. This work required him to draw on his writing skills, to attend to complex administrative detail and to negotiate revisions with potentially testy scientific experts in many fields. These tasks he accomplished with enthusiasm, tact and cheerfulness.

His dedication to excellence in science and education was such that he had many other involvements for which he neither sought nor received much recognition. He was active in the debate over amalgamation, in the Higher Education Fighting Fund and in many informal ways in promoting dialogue between universities and the Government and Parliament, including some little-known meetings between academics and the Minister.

Always he sought face-saving, 'win-win' solutions. His influence contributed to the expansion of the Australian Research Council's Fellowship program, to better academic salary awards, and less tangibly but very importantly to more constructive dialogue during a very difficult period for universities.

Robert is survived by his wife, Dr Sally Rigden, and daughters Ashley, 6, and Carolyn, 3. All of his family and friends will sorely miss his enthusiasm, cheerfulness and extraordinary generosity, and the world is a better place for his vision, dedication, penetrating intellect and eloquence.

Original publication

Citation details

Geoff Davies, 'Hill, Robert Ian (1953–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 28 January 2022.

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Life Summary [details]




25 July 1992