W.R. Browne (1884-1975)

WR Browne

William Rowan Browne was born in Ireland, and entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1903. However he was forced to withdraw, suffering from tuberculosis. To recover he took a voyage to Australia, and then spent five months in a sanitorium in the Blue Mountains. After tutoring in the country he matriculated to Sydney University, declined the classical and mathematical scholarships he won and took science, geology in particular. Apart from two short periods in Adelaide (1911-12), at the Observatory and standing in for Douglas Mawson at the University, he remained at Sydney University for all of his career.

While Browne's initial interests were in petrology (mainly igneous and metamorphic), he became involved in a wide range of research, in stratigraphy, geomorphology (which he called physiography) and tectonism.

Browne is perhaps best remembered for The Geology of the Commonwealth, a massive two volume compendium, with an accompanying map, which was published in 1950. Browne insisted that the book was Edgeworth David's, begun in the 1920s and incomplete when David died in 1934, but David was only the inspirer, Browne created this "landmark in the literature of Australian geology" virtually from scratch.

Browne was an original thinker and his major contribution to geological ideas was probably in the recognition of the variation in the types of granitic intrusions, what he called "synchronous" and "subsequent", in relation to the folding of the surrounding rocks.

Browne however was no airy academic. He made considerable contributions to engineering geology, with his work on the Hume and Warragamba Dam sites and the Gladesville Bridge.

Following retirement Browne, accompanied by his wife Ida, devoted considerable time to Tertiary and Quaternary geology, studying the silcrete ("grey billy") of the Southern Highlands and the glacial landforms of the Kosciusko region. He was also very involved in publicising the need to conserve the high country, and defended his ideas against fierce criticism, ultimately achieving the reservation of a "primitive area".

Browne's sense of humour was well disguised by a rather solemn delivery, which he used to effect in lectures and in the field, where he was a prodigious walker, observer and instructor.

W.R. (as he was invariably known) was one of the originators of the Geological Society of Australia in the early 1950s, and President of the Society, 1955-6. The W.R. Browne Medal is the Society's highest honour.

WR Browne