Dorothy Hill: the Coral Geologist and Australian Advocate

By Jaime Seltzer

Dorothy Hill was born on September 10, 1907 and began to kick butt shortly thereafter. She was interested in medicine at first, but the University of Queensland had no medical program, and her parents couldn’t afford to ship her away to Sydney or Melbourne to find one. Luckily, Dorothy was so brilliant that she won one of only twenty scholarships to the University of Queensland, where she began to study chemistry. In fact, she only studied geology because she had to take some kind of science besides biology and chemistry to pass.

The requirement quickly became an obsession. Dorothy began to do geological field work, primarily with corals, which she often did from horseback. She could be seen galloping through the wilds of Australia with carefully packed samples in her saddlebags. When she wasn’t feverishly charting the geology of the entire continent of Australia, she was playing hockey at a semi-professional level for the Queensland Women’s Hockey Team or drooling over classic cars.

She never quite gave up on her science work, however, working sometimes 80 or 90 hours a week, because apparently sleep was for losers.

Dorothy graduated from University of Queensland with the Gold Medal, meaning that she was considered the most promising student in her graduating class. It was the first time a woman had ever won that particular honor. She immediately began to work as a professor in Queensland’s geology department, pushing Australian science to become as sophisticated as Europe’s (behind which it lagged significantly.)

Dorothy was particularly well-known for her ability to organize both people and information. She kept local maps and drew in new information about the organisms of Australia as it became available, either through her own efforts or through those of other scientists, which allowed her to create a compelling picture of where certain organisms were living in Australia and at what point in the earth’s history. She trained dozens if not hundreds of undergraduate students in her meticulous approach to fieldwork and research science, and often collaborated with them later on.

In one year, she collected over a thousand specimens – just slides of one sort of organism, mind you – about as much as the rest of all of her students and fellow geology professors put together. When examining a particular organism, Dorothy found that all the previous scientific literature was in Russian, so she learned Russian just to read the available literature. At any given moment, she had four or five projects going, so that if she stalled in one, or needed to wait for funding or approval, she could seamlessly slide to another while she waited.

The real Dorothy Hill and her card in the Women in Science game.

The real Dorothy Hill and her card in the Women in Science game.

She also found time to obtain her pilot’s license while in England studying for her PhD at Cambridge, because apparently being the sort of lady who rode the hills horseback doing Science was not quite awesome enough. Around when she completed her PhD, she also did a great deal of research on the Great Barrier Reef, the largest coral reef in the world, made up of huge islands composed entirely of the little creatures.

When World War II came to Australia, she and her sister, Edna, decided to join the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Services (WRANS). At first, Dorothy did simpler things like checking to see if mines had exploded; but she soon obtained more training and quickly rose through the ranks, doing cipher work and coding, and of course managing a lot of helpless young adults, which was quite a lot like being a college professor. She never quite gave up on her science work, however, working sometimes 80 or 90 hours a week, because apparently sleep was for losers.

After the war, Dorothy got her collection of awesome fossils curated and became the President of the Royal Society of Queensland, a group of famous scientists. This lasted all of five seconds because she inherited the position (she’d been vice president) and would much rather be gathering or sorting specimens or teaching students to do so, or writing ground-breaking papers on paleontology than doing a bunch of ceremonial whatever. She was the first female president, for however short a time. She was also the first woman ever to be President of the Australian Academy of Science, in 1970.

Rather than being famous for one, great discovery, Dorothy Hill is famous for doing a wide variety of incredible things: for being an awesome veteran at a time when women in the military were few; for discovering tons of different kinds of coral and doing a lot of research on the Great Barrier Reef; for uniting Australian scientists to a common, higher standard of research and field work; for teaching a ridiculous number of students to do science well; and for being the first female president of several scientific societies. There is even an award named after her for those who do groundbreaking work in geology.

References:
Campbell, K. W., & Jell, J. S. (1998). Dorothy Hill 1907-1997 [Electronic version]. Historical Records of Australian Science, 12(2).
McCarthy, G. J. (2010, June 4). Biographical Entry: Hill, Dorothy (1907-1997). In Encyclopedia of Australian Science. Retrieved August 17, 2015, from www.eoas.info/biogs/P000494b.htm
Professor Dorothy Hill. (n.d.). In Geological Society of Australia. Retrieved August 17, 2015, from www.qld.gsa.org.au/dhill.htm

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