Clarke, William Branwhite

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Clarke, William Branwhite

(b. East Bergholt, England, 2 June 1798; d. Sydney, Australia, 16 June 1878),


Clarke was a Church of England clergyman who emigrated to New South Wales in 1839 and laid the foundations of Australian geology. The son of William Clarke, the parish schoolmaster of East Bergholt, and the former Sarah Branwhite, Clarke was educated at Dedham Grammar School and Jesus College, Cambridge, from which he received the B.A. in 1821 and the M.A. in 1824. While at Cambridge he attended the lectures of Edward Clarke, professor of miner-alogy, and of Adam Sedgwick, newly appointed Woodwardian professor of geology. In 1826 he was elected a fellow of the Geological Society of London. and for the next thirteen years he contributed papers on English and European geology and meteorology to British scientific journals. He was also active in the debate on geology and natural theology and, in reviews in theological journals in the 1830’s, argued for a clear distinction between the claims of science and Scripture.

Clarke reached Australia with his family in May 1839. Very little was known of the geology of the continent at that time, and he at once began to collect rocks and fossils and explore in a widening are from Sydney. He examined the colony’s coal deposits and in 1841 discovered evidence of gold. He publicly predicted that the country would be found “wonderfully rich in metals,” a prediction that was verified in the rush to the goldfields in 1851. From 1851 to 1853 Clarke was engaged by the government to conduct a gold survey of New South Wales and, on foot and horseback, traversed 60,000 square miles of country, reporting on the metalliferous districts and offering observations on the stratigraphy and structure of the country in twenty-eight reports. He published Plain Statements and Practical Hints Respecting the Discovery and Working of Gold in Australia in 1851 and Researches in the Southern Goldfields of New South Wales in 1860.

Clarke’s major contribution to Australian geology centered on his work on the age of the great carboniferous basins of New South Wales. From extensive fieldwork he postulated that there was a perfect conformity between the upper (botanical) beds and underlying (marine) beds in the coal formations and that both types of beds were lower in the Paleozoic sequence than the coal deposits of Europe and India. This age assignment brought him into sharp conflict with Frederick McCoy, professor of natural history at Melbourne University, who argued, on the paleontological evidence, that the coal deposits were from the Mesozoic (Jurassic) age. The dispute, hammered out in British and colonial journals, continued for thirty years. Clarke’s stratigraphic determinations were at length upheld by the European paleonotologists Laurent de Koninck (1876–1877) and Ottaker Feistmantel (1878–1879) in two monographs based on Clarke’s collections of fossils. In 1877 Clarke was awarded the Murchison Medal of the Geological Society of London for his coal researches.

Clarke published his findings on Australian stratigraphy in his Remarks on the Sedimentart Formations of New South Wales (4th ed., 1878). In addition he published some eighty monographs and papers on the geology and mineralogy of his adopted country and found time to contribute to the study of Australian meteorology, particularly on the laws of winds and storms.

Much of the impact of Clarke’s scientific labor stemmed from his continuing contact with science abroad. He corresponded regularly with Sedgwick, J. B. Jukes, and Roderick Murchison and with leaders of French geology. His friendship with James Dana, whom he met during the visit of the United States Exploring Expedition to Sydney in 1839–1840, brought him fruitful communication with American science. He was also one of the first Australian scientists to give an open-minded reception to The Origin of Species and corresponded with both Charles Darwin and Richard Owen. Clarke was a founder of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1867 and its active vice-president until 1876. The society’s Clarke Medal, struck in 1878 as Australia’s first scientific honor, commemorates his work. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1876.


I. Original Works. Clarke’s publications are listed in the Royal Society’s Catalogue of Scientific Papers, I, 937–938; VII, 396; IX, 528; and in R. L. Jack, Catalogue of Works… on the Geology… etc. of the Australian Continent and Tasmania (Sydney, 1882).

Among his works are Plain Statements and Practical Hints Respecting the Discovery and Working of Gold in Australia (Sydney, 1851); Researches in the Southern Goldfields of New South Wales (Sydney, 1860); and Remarks on the Sedimentary Formations of New South Wales (Sydney, 1867; 4th ed., 1878).

Clarke’s numerous private papers are deposited in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

II. Secondary Literature. A detailed description of Clarke’s papers can be found in Ann Mozley, A Guide to the Manuscript Records of Australian Science (Canberra, 1966). Articles by the same author are “James Dwight Dana in New South Wales, 1839–1840,” in Journal and Proceedings, Royal Society of New South Wales, 97 (1964), 185–191; “The Foundations of the Geological Survey of New South Wales,” ibid., 98 (1965), 91–100; “Evolution and the Climate of Opinion in Australia, 1840–76,” in Victorian Studies, 10, no, 4 (1967), 411–430; and the article on Clarke in Australian Dictionary of Biography, III (1969), 420–422. James Jarvis published a brief but uncritical biography, Rev, W. B. Clarke, M. A., F. R. S., F. G. S., F. R. G. S. The Father of Australian Geology (Sydney, 1944).

Ann Mozley

Clarke, William Branwhite

views updated May 08 2018

Clarke, William Branwhite (1798–1878) A clergyman and amateur scientist, who emigrated from Britain to Australia in 1839. He is credited with the first discovery of gold in Australia (1841). He took part in the geologic investigation of the New South Wales coalfield, and worked on the sedimentary structure of that State.

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