"Royal" not "Philosophical" - W.B. Clarke's Inaugural Address
to the Royal Society of NSW
Dr Bob Young
Associate Professor of Geoscience (ret’d), University of Wollongong
Wednesday 6 July 2016: 6:00 for 6:30 pm
Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street Sydney
The Royal Society of New South Wales is 150 years old this year. The Inaugural Address in 1867 by Rev. William Branwhite Clarke is the key not only to understanding the origin of the Royal Society of New South Wales, but also, to a very considerable extent, its continuing role in supporting scholarly research. Clarke (1798-1878) not only announced a change in name from the Royal's forerunner, the "Philosophical Society", but launched into an attack on contemporary philosophy which he described as "a Desert, whose only semblance of vegetation is a mirage". What was needed, he argued, was factual science, not metaphysical speculation. He was Vice-President of the Royal Society of New South Wales from 1861 to 1878, gave important annual addresses to the Society, and published many papers in its Proceedings. The Clarke Medal, awarded by the Society each year for contributions to Geology, Zoology or Botany, was established in his honour.
Although known as "the Father of Australian Geology", for more than a decade after his arrival in Sydney in 1839, Clarke wrote numerous articles that laid the foundations of the study of meteorology and climatic change in Australia; and he played an important practical role in the development of hydrology, especially with regard to the water supply of Sydney. By mid-century he had become regarded as the foremost authority on various aspects of Australian Geography, notably in his journalistic support of the expeditions of Leichhardt and Kennedy. After 1860 he was a major player in the controversy over evolution, but his role in it was hardly that of "Darwin’s bulldog” as some authors have considered him. In this talk Bob Young delved into the personal life of and described the development of Clarke's ideas about science, as well as some of his contemporaries, and the impact they had based on his recent biography This wonderfully strange country: Rev W.B. Clarke, Colonial Scientist.
Bob Young was, before his retirement, an Associate Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wollongong. He has been a member of the Geological Society of Australia and the Geographical Society of New South Wales and was Associate Editor of Australian Geographer from 1981 to 1992. He has published 5 books and over 100 research papers on topics ranging over weathering and erosional sequences, sandstone landforms, sea level change, tsunami, and the history of landform studies.