Hill, Dorothy

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(b. Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, 10 September 1907; d. Brisbane, 23 April 1997)

, geology, invertebrate paleontology, reef organisms, Paleozoic corals, and archaeocyathids.

Throughout most of the twentieth century there were few world-class women paleontologists; outstanding is Dorothy Hill, an Australian who made her mark on the international stage as a geologist, primarily an invertebrate paleontologist contributing especially to the economic growth of her home state. This Queensland woman, who took her first degree in the late 1920s, put Australian paleontology on the international stage. In the second half of the century, she became the world authority on the oldest fossil corals and related organisms, publishing over 150 scientific works and articles mainly on paleontology, stratigraphy, and geology. Her oeuvre on coral faunas and archaeocyathids and especially her work for the Treatise of Invertebrate Palaeontology became classics within her lifetime. Her life’s work was commemorated with the foundation at the University of Queensland of the Dorothy Hill Chair in Palaeontology and Stratigraphy, established in 1972, and the Dorothy Hill Library, University of Queensland (now subsumed into the Dorothy Hill Physics and Engineering Sciences Library). Although not her main aim, she attained so many firsts in her lifetime that she indirectly promoted the cause of equality for women in science; later in life she advocated university-level education for women. Until the 1960s revolution in geology, she was virtually the only woman working professionally in geology in Queensland and one of the few to achieve high office.

Hill’s Work . In the past when women paleontologists made their mark, they seem to have tackled a group, devoting a whole life of zeal and energy to the task to make them their own—Hill epitomized this with fossil corals. Hill was a world authority on Paleozoic corals and her publications remain definitive works in the field. Small in stature, Hill remained fit and active, working well into her eighties, based no doubt on her earlier sporting prowess as a hockey Blue, in rowing and athletics. Malcolm Thomis, the University of Queensland historian, described her as “the most distinguished scholar of all Queensland’s graduates” (1985, p. 287) in the first seventy-five years of the university.

Much of Hill’s Australian work consisted of interpretation of coral faunas from isolated limestones in thick sequences that had not been properly mapped, and from which other fossils had not been collected. This was frontier paleontology, and she was a pioneer who could not initially apply the closely controlled stratigraphy of the northern hemisphere to her work. Understanding the need to improve geological mapping work in Australia, and the use of a variety of organisms for correlation, enabled her to see why a vast effort had to be put into Australian geology before European standards could be reached. Most European work on corals had been carried out on well-mapped sections with sedimentary facies interpreted into the local stratigraphy. Little work of this kind had been possible in Australia, and Hill early appreciated how much field interpretation was necessary to make her work on corals more effective. This translated into her later emphasis in teaching students about the classical areas of study.

Mentors and Teachers . What influenced her to become a scientist and a geologist? Paleontology was a strange life choice for a young girl in the early twentieth century in Queensland. Certainly her parents supported her education, with her father realizing that his eldest girl had an excellent mind and would have a distinguished career. Born in Brisbane, the state capital, she was the third child (of seven) of Robert Sampson Hill, employee at a large city departmental store, and Sarah Jane Hill (née King-ton), of Coorparoo. Hill took to science, probably the first of her family to show any interest and certainly the first to aspire to university education and a higher degree. Her primary schooling was at the local suburban state school; secondary education at the prestigious Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School (1920–1924) included mathematics, chemistry, biology, and classics, all relevant to her later cultural life and in her research work.

Gaining awards and an open entrance scholarship to university, her first inclination was to study medicine, with the hope of entering a research laboratory, for she had realized the great gaps in knowledge of the time. The University of Queensland, founded in 1910, had passed its initial basic phase but did not have a medical faculty; students had to go either to Sydney or Melbourne to enroll and Hill’s family circumstances precluded this. Fortunately, she won one of the twenty entrance scholarships, choosing to enter the science faculty, to study chemistry but adding geology in an attempt to broaden her education. Like many a freshman, however, she switched emphasis in her first year, finding geology more fascinating. She came under the influence of foundation geology professor, Henry Caselli Richards (1884–1947) who was to be important to her research career. She saw in him a man of integrity, with a strong sense of humor, but what won her to geology were Richards’s personality and his interest in developing a wide range of science.

In the fledging department of geology under Richards’s guidance, she graduated in 1928 with BSc first-class honors in geology, a Gold Medal “for Outstanding Merit,” top graduate of the year, and a scholarship for the Encouragement of Original Research. A second reason for taking geology was the opportunity to work outdoors; Hill enjoyed country (the “bush”) life, learned to ride horses, and enjoyed the company of bush people, many of whom she met at the university. During a visit to friends at Mundubbera in southeast Queensland, she first saw fossils and Hill went on to collect specimens that became the subject of her first published Australian coral paper. On an ABC radio program in 1965, Hill reminisced: “as a school girl, I had spent a holiday in the country (near Mundubbera) with a school friend; a farmer showed us some fossil coral in limestone. These corals indicated that part of Queensland had been under the seas at some time and of course we wondered how and why” (Gregory, p.59). Her subsequent work on the classic Queensland material, first described around 1890 by Robert Logan Jack and Robert Etheridge, and her own fieldwork for her honors studies—done on horseback in the Brisbane Valley to Esk—led to her MSc in June 1930.

Research Training . Few contemporaries in the fledging department of geology who were interested in paleontology continued past the first degree. Hill’s undergraduate work was of a sufficiently high standard to gain the university Gold Medal; she was the first woman to be honored, and consequently she won a Foundation Orient Traveling Scholarship to the Sedgwick Museum (Geology Department), in Cambridge, England, to undertake her doctoral studies, not then possible in Australia. Because she had done a year’s work on the basic topic of her PhD thesis before she went overseas, Hill convinced her supervisor at Newnham College, Cambridge, Gertrude L. Elles (1872–1960), a specialist on graptolites, that she had already completed preliminary reading; Elles assessed that Hill had already completed one of the three years necessary for doctoral candidature.

Hill obtained her PhD Cantab on “Australian Fossil Corals in Relation to Evolution” in 1932 at the age of twenty-five based on her comparative studies of mid-Paleozoic corals from Queensland, Britain, and continental Europe. This work, started in Brisbane, was on Carboniferous corals from Mundubbera, in the Burnett River Valley of southeast Queensland, compared mainly with the Carboniferous corals of Scotland. Along with Elles, Oliver Meredith Boone Bulman (1902–1974), then a young postdoctoral graptolite worker who became a longstanding correspondent, demonstrated how detailed morphology, based on well-controlled paleontological sequences, could be made to reveal refined biostrati-graphic results beyond anything Hill had been led to expect. John S. Jell (1997) revealed “their guidance and methodology in stratigraphic palaeontology laid down valuable lessons for her. Hill was able to compare her fossils with British ones of the same age, discovering that descriptions of these were badly in need of revision” (p.47). Tim Sherratt noted, “She took on this demanding task herself, but still found time to gain a pilot’s license and to indulge in the odd (very odd) game of ‘bicycle polo’” (1994, p. 64). Sport was an important part of her early life. While studying she had represented both the University of Queensland and her state in field hockey.

Hill’s British work was well appreciated: in 1932 she was awarded the Old Students’ Research Fellowship of Newnham College, Cambridge, and in 1934 she won the Daniel Pidgeon Fund from the Geological Society of London. In Britain she had found that only a few people were undertaking seminal work in her research field. Stanley Smith at Bristol University, whose real interest was in the skeletal structure of corals, also had an understanding of the relationships between the soft and hard tissues; W.D. Lang, an expert taxonomist, and H. Deighton Thomas, both at the British Museum (Natural History) in London, understood the importance of extensive, well-preserved and curated collections for coral research. Their example set a pattern of investigation that Hill followed throughout her career. This made her work, in the words of her students, “stately and meticulous, and left one feeling that she could be followed knowing that she had investigated details carefully”(Campbell & Jell 1998a, p. 209).

Research Prowess . In 1937 Hill decided to return home, and having become a research fellow, she was determined to expand research at her old university. When war intervened she became an officer in the Operations Staff of the Australian Naval Service, working on the codes and ciphers so crucial for the conduct of the Pacific war. Demobbed (demobilized), she returned to the university and was soon made a temporary lecturer in historical geology, then joined the permanent staff, rising through the ranks as lecturer, professor, and professor emeritus.

In her work she tackled problems caused by the different interpretations of earlier workers brought about mainly by misunderstanding the structures being described. She set about defining the structural details of corals in terms of tissue patterns and skeletal deposition, culminating in a paper on the terminology of rugose corals. This was a major advance in the understanding of the group, and most workers accepted her views. She went on to think about the way in which coral structures were the outcome of depositional processes of microscopic features of the skeleton, and how these were formed from the soft tissues of the polyps. She published a series of works on fine skeletal structures and their relationship to the septal invaginations or the basal plates of the polyps. This research, begun in Cambridge, on crystal structure and skeletal features influenced her later studies, and those of her students, reaching fruition after her return to Queensland when she published a paper dealing with the skeletal growth of crystals in hexacorals with Walter H. Bryan (1891–1966), who worked on the processes of crystallization in igneous rocks.

Her research achievements in the next decades proved her earlier promise; in his memorial Bruce Waterhouse noted that she coauthored the first edition on corals for the International Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, adding that she “then rewrote the two volumes of the second version on her own.” Widely involved in regional Queensland geology, she cooperated with the Queensland Geological Survey to produce maps, and coedited the Geology of Queensland, published by the Geological Society of Australia in 1960. For many years, she compiled detailed maps of local Brisbane geology. She took on consulting work with oil companies, such as Shell (Qld) Development Pty. Ltd. and strongly supported scientific exploration of the Great Barrier Reef.

A pivotal cooperative relationship began with John West Wells (1907–1994) of Cornell University in the 1950s when Hill had gained her permanent lectureship. Wells had begun work on Devonian fossil fish in Ohio but switched to corals when peers and colleagues emphasized that there was no future in that work (Turner, 1994). He made his mark in the popular scientific press by analyzing the diurnal rhythms of Devonian corals and working out the number of days in a year. He visited Hill on study leave in 1954, to continue preparation of the coral volume for the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. Between them they combined expertise from Paleozoic tabulates to younger Mesozoic-Recent scleractinian corals. The interaction of these two preeminent minds, coming from different backgrounds and with markedly different experiences of their science, enhanced the final product, and made real advances in the understanding of coral paleontology. Kenton S. W. Campbell and John S. Jell surmised “This was a very significant move for Hill, because in the 1960–1980 period, many American workers rose to prominence in coral palaeontology” (1998b). In 1971 an International Association for the Study of Fossil Cnidaria and Porifera was inaugurated, promoted by B. S. Sokolov (USSR), J. P. Chevalier (France), and Hill, with Hill elected as the first president. Many American workers were active in this group; foremost was William Oliver Jr., a student of Wells.

Hill notched up many firsts for women, being one of the few postwar female professional scientists in Queensland and also in academe in Australia. She became an Australian Academician and Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Her major influence, however, has been to create an essentially Australian (and maybe even Queensland) school and philosophy of paleontology, in which she encouraged people to take their doctoral degrees within Australia, and in the foundation of the Queensland Palaeontographical Society and then the Australasian Association of Palaeontologists, which publishes the journal Alcheringa. Hill also realized the necessity of building a fine geological library, and she created the finest in Australia especially for its foreign paleontological holdings. She maintained a strong interest in the history of collections, geology, and of paleontology, concentrating in later life on these themes.

Hill fostered, nurtured, and inspired a whole generation of paleontologists: her successor as chair, Bruce Waterhouse, explained: “Many of her students are now scattered through the mining industry, the state geological

surveys, Bureau of Mineral Resources and successor Australian Geological Survey Organisation, and universities. It must have given great satisfaction to see how well some of them did” (Waterhouse, 1997). Graeme Maxwell discovered an entirely unknown basin, the Yarrol Basin; Ken Campbell made profound contributions in many fossil phyla; Bruce Runnegar (head of the Astrobiology Institute—formerly Exobiology Institute—at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 2006) focused first on Permian bivalves and then diversifying into shell ultrastudies; and, pleasingly for her, John Jell assumed the mantle of coral expert. She encouraged them to create their own Australian paleontological style. Her thinking is illustrated by her critical reaction when Waterhouse of New Zealand met her in 1955 and said that he was about to send mid-Triassic ammonoids to Bernard Kummel. She wanted to know why New Zealanders could not attempt to identify the fossils for themselves: “You don’t want to remain a colony for ever, do you” (Waterhouse, 1997).

Hill has provided a role model (albeit unconsciously, perhaps) for generations of students, especially women, and the Australian Academy of Science has an annual award in her name for young research women in earth sciences. Bruce Runnegar and Jell (1983) listed most of her publications, with a final tally of around 151 publications in 57 years, as with over ten books, mostly coauthored, she showed her catalytic and cooperative nature. Campbell, her first student, summarized in his memorial: “She never sought publicity for her work, nor did she seek to make an impact on the wider politics of the country. In this respect she did not attract national interest. In her adult life she was never a person for social activity, nor was she out to draw attention to her field of interest through her contribution to the industrial outcome of her work, though this was considerable” (Campbell & Jell, 1998a, p. 222). Despite her fairly pedestrian beginnings, Hill was not afraid to take the lead, and went on to gain distinctions and awards for services to geology and paleontology. A woman of great personal integrity, she is thought of as sacrificing an overseas career because she wanted Australian universities to reach the forefront of academic achievement, but she was quintessentially a Queenslander who preferred her home. Nevertheless, by her brilliance and thorough hard work, she achieved international distinctions at a time when science was a man’s world. Her papers are archived at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra, and the Fryer Library of University of Queensland Archives in St. Lucia.


The most complete listing of Hill’s works can be found in Campbell & Jell, 1998a. Her papers are archived at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra, and the Fryer Library of University of Queensland Archives in St. Lucia.


A Monograph on the Carboniferous Rugose Corals of Scotland. 4 vols. London: Palaeontographical Society, 1938–1941. With John West Wells. Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. Part

F, Coelenterata, edited by Raymond C. Moore. Lawrence: Geological Society of America and University of Kansas Press, 1956, 1981.

With Alan K. Denmead, eds. “The Geology of Queensland.” Journal of the Geological Society of Australia 7 (1960): 1–474. Queensland centenary production.

With W. G. H. Maxwell. Elements of the Stratigraphy of Queensland. Brisbane, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1962.

“Archaeocyatha from Loose Material at Plunket Point at the Head of Beardmore Glacier.” In Antarctic Geology: Proceedings of the First International Symposium on Antarctic Geology, Capetown, 15–21 September 1963, edited by R. J. Adie. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1964.

As editor with others. Fossils of Queensland. Brisbane, Australia: Queensland Palaeontographical Society, 1964–1972.

“Devonian of Eastern Australia.” In International Symposium on the Devonian System, Calgary, vol. 1, edited by D. H. Oswald. Calgary: Alberta Society of Petroleum Geologists (1967): 613–630.

“Phylum Archaeocyatha Vologdin.” In The Fossil Record, edited by W. Brian Harland, et al. London: Geological Society, 1967.

“The Great Barrier Reef.” In Captain Cook, Navigator and Scientist, edited by G. M. Badger. Canberra: Australian Academy of Science (1970): 70–86.

“Part E, Vol. I (of 2): Archaeocyatha.” In Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, 2nd ed., edited by Curt Teichert. New York: Geological Society of America, 1972.

“Lower Carboniferous Corals.” In Atlas of Palaeobiogeography, edited by Anthony Hallam. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1973.


Campbell, Kenton S. W., ed. Stratigraphy and Palaeontology: Essays in Honour of Dorothy Hill. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1969.

Campbell, Kenton S. W., and John S. Jell. “Dorothy Hill 1907–1997.” Historical Records of Australian Science 12, no. 2 (1998a): 205–228. Major source of biography and chronology.

———. “Dorothy Hill 1907–1997.” Biographical Memoirs of the Australian Academy of Science(1998b). Available from http://www.science.org.au/academy/memoirs/hill.htm.

Denmead, Alan K. “Portrait of a Scientist.” Earth-Science Reviews 8 (1972): 351–363.

“Dorothy Hill.” Australasian Science 29 (1988): 39–41. Upon the opening of the Dorothy Hill Geology Library.

“Dorothy Hill. People: In Memoriam.” Cambridge University, Newnham College Roll Letter X (1998): 112–114.

Hill’s studies in England. Flett, Sir John Smith. The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. London: H.M.S.O., 1937.

Gregory, Helen. “Dorothy Hill CBE Ph.D. D.Sc. Hon. LLD, FRS, FAA. Research Professor of Geology 1959–1972.” In Vivant Professores: Distinguished Members of the University of Queensland 1910–1940, no. 7. St. Lucia, Australia: Fryer Memorial Library Occasional Publications, 1987.

———. Great Queensland Women. Brisbane, Australia: Office for Women, Queensland Government, 2005.

Jell, John S. “Dorothy Hill.” In Brilliant Careers, Women Collectors and Illustrators in Queensland, edited by Judy McKay. Brisbane, Australia: Queensland Museum, 1997. Written by her first student on fossil corals.

Jell, Peter A. “Dorothy Hill (1907–1997).” Nature 388 (17 July 1997): 234. Reflective assessment of her contribution after her death.

Roberts, John, and Peter A. Jell, eds. “Dorothy Hill Jubilee Memoir.” Memoirs of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists 1 (1983).

Runnegar, Bruce. “The Message of Alcheringa.” Alcheringa 1, nos. 1–2 (1975). Hill’s achievement in founding a distinctly Australian paleontological journal.

Runnegar, Bruce, and John S. Jell. “Dorothy Hill, C.B.E., Ph.D., D.Sc., LL.D., F.R.S., F.A.A., F.G.S.” Memoirs of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists 1 (1983): 9–15. Listed her publications as around 100, with over 10 books.

Sherratt, Tim. “Finding Life in Ancient Corals—Dorothy Hill.” Australasian Science summer issue (1994): 64.

Simpson, Andrew. “The Work and Type Collections of the Australian Palaeontologist, Professor Dorothy Hill (1907–1997).” Geological Curator 7, no. 2 (1999): 51–69. Important source on Hill’s specimens for curators.

Thomis, Malcolm I. A Place of Light & Learning: The University of Queensland’s First Seventy-five Years. St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland Press, 1985.

Turner, Susan. “Women in Palaeontology in Australia.” In Useful and Curious Geological Enquiries beyond the World: Pacific-Asia Historical Themes, edited by David F. Branagan and G. H. McNally. Sydney: 19th Int. INHIGEO Symposium, Sydney, 4–8 July: 248–250, 1994. First recognition of women paleontologists in Australia.

———. “Women in Paleontology in Australia.” In Sciences of the Earth. An Encyclopedia of Events, People, and Phenomena, edited by Gregory A. Good. New York: Garland, 1998.

———. “Invincible but Mostly Invisible: Australian Women’s Contribution to Palaeontology.” In The Role of Women Geologists, edited by Cynthia Burek. London: Geological Society of London Special Publication, 2006.

Waterhouse, Bruce. “Dorothy Hill AC, CBE (1907–97).” In Geological Society of New Zealand, 1997. Available from http://www.gsnz.org.nz/gssuh2.htm.

White, A. H. “Queensland’s Contribution to Mining and the Earth Sciences: An Historical Perspective.” In Queensland: The State of Science, edited by R. W. Johnson and C. R. King. Brisbane, Australia: Royal Society of Queensland, 1995. Mentions Professor Dorothy Hill’s treatise on Coelenterata.

Susan Turner