DAVID, Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth (1858-1934)


DAVID, Sir Tannatt William Edgeworth (1858-1934)
geologist
was born on 28 January 1858 at St Fagan's rectory near Cardiff in South Wales. He was the eldest son of the Rev. William David, a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, a good classical scholar and naturalist. Through his mother he was connected with the famous Edgeworth family, and was also of the same stock as James Ussher once primate of All Ireland. It was his mother's cousin, William A. E. Ussher of the geological survey, who first interested David in what was to be his life work. The boy was educated at home until he was 12 years old, when he was sent to Magdalen College School, Oxford. There he developed his love of the classics and literature, and became a senior prefect, captain of the football team and boat club. In 1876 he entered as a candidate for a classical scholarship at New College, Oxford, and gained first place out of over 70 candidates.
David entered Oxford university intending to take holy orders. Though his main study was in classics he also developed an interest in drawing, and studied geology under Sir Joseph Prestwick, F.R.S. In 1878, after taking a first class in classics at the honour examination in moderations, he had a breakdown in health. A voyage to Australia in a sailing ship was taken, and he came back a much stronger man. He returned to Oxford, gave much time to geology and graduated B.A. in 1880. A year of open-air life at home followed during which he carried on his geological studies, and in November 1881 he read his first paper, "Evidences of Glacial Action in the neighbourhood of Cardiff" before the Cardiff Naturalists' Society. In the following year he attended Professor Judd's lectures on geology at South Kensington, and was offered the position of assistant geological surveyor to the government of New South Wales. He sailed on the S.S. Potosi on 5 October 1882, arrived at Sydney in the middle of November, and immediately took up his duties. In 1884 his report on the tin deposits in the New England district was published, and three years later it was expanded into the Geology of the Vegetable Creek Tin Mining Field, New England District. Apart from its scientific interest this was valuable in connexion with the mining operations on this field, from which some £10,000,000 worth of tin was won. On 30 July 1885 he was married to Caroline M. Mallett, principal of the Hurlstone Training College for Teachers, who had travelled to Australia in the same vessel with him. In April 1886 he was instructed to examine the great northern coalfield, and after much prospecting the Greta coal seam was discovered, which has since yielded over £50,000,000 worth of coal. Much of his time during the next four years was spent near Maitland where he was still tracing and mapping the coal measures and reporting to the government on other matters of commercial value. In 1890 he applied for the chair of geology and physical geography at the university of Sydney, was elected, and began his university work at the beginning of 1891.
David was not only a good scientist but had a background of general culture, a sense of humour, great enthusiasm, sympathy and courtesy, and he quickly fitted into his new position. His department was housed in a small cottage, its equipment was poor, and he had no lecturers or demonstrators; but he gradually got better facilities built and up his department. In 1892 he was president of the geological section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at the Hobart meeting, and held the same position at Brisbane in 1895. He took a great interest in past ice ages which possibly led to his enthusiasm for Arctic and Antarctic exploration. He was for a long period of his life particularly interested in the question of whether fossils could be traced in pre-Cambrian rocks, a question not finally settled at his death. In 1895 he paid a short visit to England to see his parents, and in 1896 went with an expedition under Professor Sollas of Oxford to the island of Funafuti, to take borings which it was hoped would settle the question of the formation of coral atolls. There were defects in the boring machinery and the bore penetrated only slightly more than 100 feet. In 1897 David led a second expedition which succeeded in reaching a depth of 557 feet when he had to return to Sydney. He then organized a third expedition which, under the leadership of A. E. Finckh, was successful in carrying the bore to 1114 feet, and in proving that Darwin's theory of subsidence was correct. His reputation was growing in Europe, in 1899 he was awarded the Bigsby medal of the Geological Society of London, and in 1900 he was elected F.R.S. In this year he conducted an interesting inquiry on the geological history of the Kosciusko plateau. In 1904 he was elected president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science which met in Dunedin, and in 1906 he attended the geological international congress held in Mexico. On his way back to Australia he was able to see the Grand Canyon of Colorado, "perhaps the finest geological section in the world", and to study the effect of the San Francisco earthquake. Towards the end of 1907 he was invited to join the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic. He worked hard and successfully to raise funds for the expedition, and left for New Zealand in December with Leo Cotton and Douglas Mawson, two of his former students. David was nearly 50 years of age and it was intended that he should stay only until April 1908, but he showed himself to be such an ideal explorer that he was asked to remain the whole year. On 5 March a start was made on the ascent of Mt Erebus, David led the summit party consisting of Mawson, Dr Mackay and himself, and there was a supporting party of three which it was afterwards decided should also attempt to reach the summit. In this they were successful in spite of a blizzard which barred their progress for a day and night. One member of the party had his feet badly frostbitten, and had to be left in camp before the final dash, but David and four others reached the summit and the whole party returned to the base. About the beginning of October David, Mawson and Mackay started on an endeavour to reach the south magnetic pole. By great determination and courage the many difficulties and dangers were surmounted, and they reached the pole on 16 January 1909. It had been intended to be back by that time so it was necessary that the return journey should be made as quickly as possible. Fortunately they were favoured by the weather, for they were almost exhausted when the depot was reached on 3 February. While they were debating whether they should wait for the problematical arrival of their ship or attempt the journey to winter quarters, the report of a gun from the ship was heard and they were rescued. The expedition returned to New Zealand on 25 March, and when David returned to Sydney he was presented with the Mueller medal by the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at an official welcome. When he rose to speak the enthusiasm and cheering was almost unbelievable. At Shackleton's request he then went on a lecture tour, and earned enough money to pay the expenses of publication of the two volumes on the geology of the expedition. He also wrote his "Narrative of the Magnetic Pole Journey", which appeared in the second volume of Shackleton's Heart of the Antarctic. In 1910 the honour of C.M.G. was conferred on him, and visiting England in connexion with the scientific results of the Antarctic expedition, Oxford gave him the honorary degree of D.Sc. In 1913 he was elected for the second time president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.
The war made it difficult for David to concentrate on his geological work. He did good work as a speaker during the recruiting campaign, and suggested the formation of a corps of skilled miners. In February 1916 the mining battalion sailed for Europe and David, now 58 years old, went with them as geologist with the rank of major. In France he did most valuable work not only in connexion with mining and counter-mining, but in finding dry sites for dug-outs and mine galleries, and in dealing with many other problems. In September 1916 a rope broke while he was examining a well and he was thrown to the bottom. Two ribs were broken, he was injured internally, but was discharged from hospital about a month later and returned to duty. Some of his tunnellers were concerned in the immense explosions of mines which were fired in June 1917, and early in 1918 he was awarded the D.S.O. That his duties were not light may be gathered from the fact that he was one of the five geologists employed by the allies, while the Germans used many times that number. Early in 1918 he was asked whether he would consider becoming principal of a university in Great Britain, but felt it was too late to change his profession and he had no wish to leave Australia. He returned with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in April 1919. He then took up a long-cherished project, the writing of a book on the geology of Australia, and became interested again in the problem of pre-Cambrian fossils. In October 1920 he was created a K.B.E. and became known as Sir Edgeworth David. In 1921 he obtained leave of absence to enable him to get on with his book on the geology of Australia, and travelled in the centre and in Western Australia. In 1922 he began to suffer again from his accident while at the war, and felt compelled to retire from his professorship at the end of the year. By the kindness of a private citizen who supplied the salary of his substitute it was made possible to grant David two years leave of absence on full pay before his retirement. In 1926 he journeyed to England again working on his book, but found the climate did not suit him and returned at the end of 1927. His health no longer permitted him to work the long hours that he had been accustomed to in earlier days. In 1932 his large geological map of Australia with a volume containing explanatory notes was published. It was everywhere well received and has been described as "an unrivalled summary of the geology of Australia". In November 1933 the first "David Lecture" was given at Sydney by Professor E. W. Skeats on Some Founders of Australian Geology, published as a pamphlet in 1934. This lectureship was founded by the Australian National Research Council, of which David was the first president when it was founded in 1919. David kept on working at his book until the end. On 20 August 1934 he collapsed while working in his old room at the university, and died at the Prince Alfred hospital on 28 August 1934. He was survived by Lady David, a son and two daughters. The Commonwealth and State governments were associated in a state funeral. His book on the geology of Australia was left unfinished, but in 1939 it was in process of completion by one of his colleagues, Associate-professor W. R. Browne of Sydney. Of his many papers over 100 will be found listed in the Geological Magazine for January 1922. A travelling scholarship in his memory was founded at the university of Sydney in 1936.
David was above medium height, slender, and always in good training. When past 50 he was able to take his share in the 1000 miles of man-hauling on the journey to and from the south magnetic pole. He was an ideal explorer, always cheerful, hopeful and never failing in his courtesy. These qualities were also apparent in his work at the university, where both undergraduates and colleagues fell under his spell. It was said of him that he could charm a bird off a bough. He was an excellent lecturer with a fine resonant voice, his immense enthusiasm was tempered by a sense of humour, and he had such understanding and appreciation of other men's work that to be associated with him was a privilege. His valuable work for science has been suggested, his inspiration for other workers can scarcely be calculated, and great as he was as a scientist he was greater as a man.
His wife, Caroline Martha Lady David, came to Australia in 1882. She was the author of Funafuti or Three Months on a Coral Island, published in 1899, an interesting account of her stay on the island during the 1897 expedition.
M. E. David, Professor David; The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 August 1934, R. E. Priestly, Nature, 6 October 1934; E. W. Skeats, Some Founders of Australian Geology; Geological Magazine, January 1922.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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