Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1132nd General Monthly Meeting

"Rev. W. B. Clarke - 19th century polymath and his scientific correspondence"

Dr Ann Moyal AM

Wednesday 2 February 2005, 6.30 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre.


The Rev William Branwhite Clarke, Australia's pioneer geologist, Anglican clergyman, scientific savant and pioneer, was one of the key figures of Australian nineteenth-century science. He flourished at a time when science was both the province of the independent and private investigator and as it moved towards a growing professionalism and institutionalisation. He served as an influential Council member of the Philosophical Society from its foundation in 1850 and as its Vice-President in 1858. In 1866, he was a key mover behind the foundation of that Society's successor, The Royal Society of New South Wales, and served as its inaugural and influential Vice-President for seven years.

Clarke took a striking role in the reception of Darwin's Origin of the Species in Australia. Like the majority of British scientists in 1860, colonial scientists admired Darwin as a naturalist, but detested the implication of his evolutionary ideas. The Clarke-Darwin correspondence is a testament to Clarke's open-mindedness. In turn Darwin absorbed Clarke's notes in later editions of The Origin, and served as one of Clarke's sponsors in his election to The Royal Society in 1876.

One of Clarke's lasting memorial remains with the Royal Society of New South Wales. Late in 1878, The Royal Society of New South Wales struck the Clarke Medal as the first scientific medal to be issued in the Colonies. The annual award honours work in the natural sciences in Australia.


Dr Moyal is a leading historian of Australian Science, a graduate of the University of Sydney and a Doctor of Letters from the Australian National University. She is the author of many books and papers. Dr Moyal spoke on the topic of her book that was recently launched at the State Library: The Scientific Correspondence of the Rev. W B Clarke, Australia's Pioneer Geologist.

Report on the General Monthly Meeting

Dr. Moyal remarked that the Rev. W. B. Clarke would have been delighted that the Society he did so much to establish had survived to its 1132nd monthly meeting. The full text of her address will appear in a coming issue of the Society's Journal, and an extensive abstract appeared in the last Bulletin, so a brief note will suffice here.

A strong sense of history, which led W B Clarke to carefully preserve all his voluminous correspondence, has established him as a very important figure in the development of science in Australia. It also shows that far from being a parochial outpost of empire we were doing scientific work of international significance even in the 19th century.

He supported young scientists at the period when science was making the difficult transition from amateur to professional and was influential with Governors and the Establishment.

His creed for the society is perhaps even more needed today than it was then: "We must strive to discern clearly, understand fully, and report faithfully, to adjure hasty theories, and unsupported conjectures; where we are in doubt, not to be positive."

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