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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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Joseph Newell (Joe) Jennings (1916–1984)

by D. Walker

Joseph Newell Jennings died of a heart attack whilst skiing on 24 August. He was 68.

Joe was born in Yorkshire and, although translated to Cheshire at an early age, remained defiantly Yorkshire throughout his life; it was the label of his clan rather than the description of a locality. He graduated from Cambridge University (St Catherine's College) with first class honours in geography in 1938 and then became a research student in the Botany School, working on the stratigraphy and vegetation history of the Norfolk Broads.

Before completing this course he married and went to the war. He was an officer in the Royal Artillery, an experience to which he later attributed his dislike of telephones and the volume of his unaided voice. Demobilized in 1946, he was appointed to a lectureship in the Geography Department of Leicester University where he taught all aspects of physical geography including surveying.

In 1952 he joined the Geography Department of the Research School of Pacific Studies as Reader in Geomorphology and, apart from suffering what he thought a silly change of title to Professorial Fellow and becoming a foundation member of the Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology in 1968, he then stayed put, despite seductive overtures from several parts of the world. He retired in 1977, 'to make way for a younger man' but remained an active Visiting Fellow in the Department until his death.

By his early middle age Joe was already a legend, not only because of certain individual characteristics — ebullience, pugnacity, learning, generosity, humour— but for the way in which all these and more were welded together into a completely integrated whole. He was all of a piece.

This image was entirely genuine and the more admirable because it arose from the synthesis of the complexities and depths of his character rather than as an easy response to the superficialities of life. Joe, whom many will remember for his amiable dogmatism, had his share of uncertainties and it was perhaps the greatest of his many triumphs that he refused to let these dominate his life.

In his youth, in the years before the Second World War and immediately afterwards, his intellectual ability propelled him across social barriers which were still very strong in the British academic world. Others in the same boat took the easy way and chose to forget the sources of the very energies and standards which had nurtured them. But on Joe, morality made greater demands which, nevertheless, he faced with enthusiasm and good humour. In those years neither the academic hierarchy nor students were always kind to him; characteristically he stood his ground with both to emerge respected by the one, loved by the other and an exemplar to all.

The work that was to have been his PhD thesis earned him the Back Grant of the Royal Geographical Society and remains an outstanding example of its kind, despite the fact that some aspects of the interpretation were later superseded, to Joe's lasting delight.

In Australia he found a field largely unexploited and energetically expanded into it. He worked on sea level change, on glaciation and half a dozen other phenomena with accuracy, originality and insight providing well-founded springboards from which others later launched themselves. But his strongest, most persistent, commitment was to all aspects of limestone geography, including cave science. It is a mark of his quality as a scientist and his tenacity as an explorer that, although Australia is not well-endowed with limestone landforms and such as exist are mostly in very remote places, he became a world authority in this major research field.

About 200 published scholarly works, as well as much other writing, the Victoria Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, the Clarke Medal of the Royal Society of NSW, honorary life membership of the National Speleological Society of America and an editorship of the Zeitschrift fur Geomorfologie all testify to his international stature as a scientist. In Australia, though there were others before him, he can justly be described as the father of modern geomorphology and cave science. Moreover, he paced all who followed him, bemoaning his lack of mathematical training whilst somehow attaining all the mathematics, chemistry and technology applicable to his constantly developing ideas.

Although meticulous, critical and utterly objective in his science, Joe's major motivations were always emotional. He was immensely generous of his time and advice to all who seriously sought it because he could not bear to see anyone else in need of what he had to give.

But emotion prompted him in other ways too. Denied the normal completion of his PhD by the necessity of making a living, he was amongst the first to take advantage of Cambridge University's later dispensation which permitted supplication for that degree on the basis of published work. When it became known to him that the appropriate authorities would have felt easier awarding him the more senior ScD he demurred; he'd been 'done out' of a PhD once and a PhD was what he was going to have. What's more, he was going to have it from the Faculty of Biology, and not from Geography, in accordance with his earlier registration. He had his way. But the forces of British politics were not so malleable when he rejected his British citizenship in protest at the invasion of Suez.

Such a person could not have failed to be an influence in the growth of the infant ANU. So many — professors, gardeners, registrars, students, vice-chancellors — have been the beneficiaries of Joe's outspoken commendation and criticism. He was party to a number of the University's most important and long-serving decisions invariably, in those contexts, setting aside his lurking conservatism and seeking for the good of the present and the future.

There were people, a very few, whom Joe unrepentantly despised. There were many more whose views about this or that he greatly disliked, but whose right to hold them he would vociferously defend, an indulgence which he even conferred on teetotallers, sourpusses and those who could not share his enthusiasm for the human comedy.

It would have been impossible for Joe to have lived such a productive and influential life without strong support from his wife and children. Somebody had to modulate the output from the dynamo and sometimes even to reassemble it from parts scattered by its own energy. Those of us who so enjoyed him owe as much to Betty Jennings of the firm word and constant heart.

When someone of such personal and intellectual distinction leaves the scene it is natural for those who are left to sense the 'end of an era' and a lack of direction. But despite the fact that he had his own heroes and heroines and could not have been unaware of his own stature, Joe would have admonished us 'not to be so daft'. For there is no beginning and no end; yet trumpets sound when a whole person passes.

Original publication

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Citation details

D. Walker, 'Jennings, Joseph Newell (Joe) (1916–1984)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 June, 1916
Leeds, Yorkshire, England


24 August, 1984 (aged 68)
Eucumbene, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

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