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Dominic (Dom) Williams (1947–1984)

by Jim Bowler

Dr Dominic Williams, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology, died in the Canberra Hospital on 19 September following major surgery.

Born in Adelaide in 1947, he grew up with his parents and two brothers in city suburbs and rural centres, Meningie and Auburn. Following secondary schooling at St Peter's College, Adelaide, after three years in electrical engineering he took time off from university studies to find himself and his place in the world.

In 1973, a fascination with animals and natural history brought him to an undergraduate course in Flinders University. Fired by enthusiasm, tempted by his maturity and borne on by his sharp intellect, he completed that course with First Class Honours in 1976, taking out the Flinders University Medal.

During his subsequent PhD research on the vertebrate palaeontology and natural history of the Flinders Ranges his name frequently came to the attention of those of us concerned with evolution of the natural environment. After a brief sojourn as a research assistant in the Department of Zoology, University of Adelaide, in early 1983 his interests and skills found a home in a post-doctoral post at the ANU. Here, in the Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology, he joined the SLEADS project concentrating on the study of Australia's long-neglected inland salt lakes and associated desert features.

Extensive expeditionary experience equipped him in a ready-made way to study the history of the Lake Eyre region. He approached this work with flair, diligence and enthusiasm; he participated in a torrid February 1983 drilling period on the blazing salt crust of Lake Eyre. While the rest of us bemoaned our wretched choice of site and season, Dom rarely complained — an attribute that characterised his attitude in adversity to the end.

His published results and work in progress, although sadly short, were in several ways noteworthy.

Firstly, his assessment of those changing environments in the Flinders Ranges were fresh, based entirely on new data, meticulously recorded and carefully synthesised.

Secondly, with his background in vertebrates, he undertook scientific evaluation of otherwise mundane emu eggs. A vertebrate palaeontologist at heart, at the time of his death he had just completed a large manuscript on the taxonomy of extinct Diprotodons.

If his science was thoroughly painstaking and imaginative, his inability to complete it, to fulfill its early promise, is a sad loss to us all. At the time of his death, Dom was organising an international meeting of the Salt Lake Study Group (SLEADS) at Picnic Point on the banks of the Murray River near Echuca. His death on the day before the workshop excursion began and his burial on the first day of the meeting cast their shadows of grief. But as an appropriate tribute to his preliminary efforts, that meeting proved to be the lively success he would have wished. The proceedings to be published will be dedicated to his memory.

In Dom Williams we were dealing with a different man, not just an efficient scientist. His enduring and endearing personal charm won him a permanent record in the hearts and minds of his colleagues. A quietly spoken, almost self-effacing person, he was very much 'his own man'. An academic who clothed his ambition in a cloak of gentle persuasion, he was almost over-modest in claims he made for himself and ever ready to see the best in others.

Although the sense of loss of a person so young, so otherwise full of vitality, is profound and even shattering, we are very much moved by the strength and positive qualities that Dom in his short life brought to the ANU.

With his two brothers, Stephen, Michael and their families, we share their deep sense of loss and extend to them our genuine sympathy. If those of us who knew Dom can emulate his many qualities, scientific and personal, his short life will not have been in vain.

Original publication

Citation details

Jim Bowler, 'Williams, Dominic (Dom) (1947–1984)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/williams-dominic-dom-1043/text1044, accessed 20 May 2024.

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