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Robert Oliver Chalmers, usually known as Oliver, was born in Scotland. He had already started school in Glasgow when he migrated to Australia with his family in 1920. He was 8 years old at the time. He continued his schooling in Sydney, completing high school at North Sydney Boys' High where he took particular interest in the study of chemistry and physics.
In 1929, Thomas Hodge-Smith, Curator of the Minerals, was looking for ‘a promising lad at North Sydney High School who ... would be suitable for the position of cadet at the Australian Museum’. Oliver was recommended for the position by his chemistry teacher, Adrian Watson.
He was expected to work full-time in the Mineral Department, so he started studying for a Diploma of Geology at the Sydney Technical College, where classes were offered after working hours. Because he had been hired to carry out the chemical analysis for the department, he also took on a course in practical chemistry. To enable him to attend his extra classes, he was allowed one half day off per week.
Despite receiving the College Medal as well as his Diploma with Honours, Oliver considered his grounding in petrology was inadequate, so the next year he studied petrology at the University of Sydney.
The Public Service review
In late 1930 he found himself in charge of the Mineral Department when Hodge-Smith went on a field-trip to Harts Range. At the instigation of the Trustees of that period, the Public Service Board was investigating the running of the Museum. They admitted that Hodge-Smith’s absence didn’t cause much inconvenience, which presumably indicated that Oliver Chalmers was doing his work well. Even so, they concluded that he was one of the surplus employees who could become either part of a pool of general Scientific Assistants at the Museum, or could work elsewhere in the Public Service.
They also proposed that ‘the Mineralogist with his collections’ should be transferred from the Australian Museum to the Mining Museum, which was part of the Department of Mines. The Trustees of the Museum convened a Special Committee to consider the question of the transfer of the Mineral Department. The committee concluded that once certain items from the Australian Museum’s mineral collection were transferred to the Mining Museum, and certain items from the Mining Museum’s collection were transferred to the Australian Museum, there would be no overlap of activities. No other changes were made to the Mineral Department as a result of the review.
Late 1930s and World War II
In 1938-39, Oliver took over running the Second Year Geology Course at the Sydney Technical College from Dr George Davenport Osborne, who was in Cambridge working on his PhD thesis. This was in addition to Chalmers’ work at the Museum.
Around the same time, the Geology department began work on a relief map of Sydney and the Blue Mountains, having already completed a relief map of NSW. The army became interested in the project once the war started and the job was completed with the help of a large number of volunteers.
Oliver found his work at the Museum very interesting but he strongly believed that scientists should also be socially responsible citizens. So on the 1st of March 1943, he went to work for Federal Government in the Scientific Liaison Bureau. This was a part of the Department of War Organization of Industry.
The job of the Scientific Liaison Bureau was to advise industry on which scientific facilities could provide the most appropriate help with any scientific or technical issues that arose. To do this it kept tabs on all the scientific facilities in Australia.
In 1944 the Scientific Liaison Bureau became a part of CSIR, later CSIRO, and Oliver Chalmers seriously considered staying on rather than returning to the Museum. However, Thomas Hodge-Smith died on 8th June, 1945. This was completely unforseen as he was only 17 years older than Chalmers. As a result, Oliver Chalmers became the head of the Mineral Department of the Australian Museum at the invitation of the Director, Arthur Walkom.
Curator of Minerals
During his tenure as Curator of Minerals, Oliver extended his study to include Australites, which are a form of tektite. He made a significant collection of Australites, particularly from the clay pans in central South Australia, when he took part in the Australian-American Meteorite Expedition of 1962. This field trip was coordinated by meteorite specialists Dr Brian Mason of the American Museum of Natural History, and Dr Ed Henderson of the Smithsonian Institute in the USA.
The three cooperated on further field trips in 1964 and 1965, by which time Dr Mason was also working for the Smithsonian Institute. In search of more Australites, Oliver participated in another field trip in 1965, with Professor John Lovering of the Australian National University and Professor Bill Eamon, a visiting American geochemist; also a field trip to the Birdsville Track area organized by the Australian Museum in 1967. The latter was a joint field trip with Museum zoologists.
Oliver retired on 12th October 1971 after more than 42 years with the organisation, but he continued to work part-time until Lin Sutherland was appointed Curator of Minerals in 1972.
Lin Sutherland and Oliver Chalmers liaised closely on museum activities after Lin became Curator of Minerals. They cooperated on several field trips, most notably a trip in 1975 with Dr Brian Mason to collect minerals and meteorites across Australia. Together they organised committees and conferences including activities for the International Mineralogical Association Meeting in 1976 in Sydney.
A highlight of their collaboration was their 1980 visit to the 100th Anniversary International Geological Congress in France and the UK, which involved leading natural history and mineral museums. It was in Scotland that Lin persuaded Oliver to forgo his usual frugal habit of eating the cheapest dish on the menu and to try something more up-market. After that Oliver became something of a connoisseur of fine dining.
In addition to his work at the Museum, Oliver Chalmers was involved with the Gemmological Association of Australia almost from its beginning in October 1945. Very early in its history, the Association started a course in Gemmology with Oliver Chalmers as lecturer, and Curator of the Mining Museum, Horace Francis Whitworth, as Chief Examiner.
In 1957 Chalmers succeeded Whitworth as Chief Examiner, so he was the first to hold the impressive title: Chairman of the Board of Studies and Examinations, when the position was renamed. In 1965 Oliver Chalmers was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Association in recognition of his devotion to the educational activities. Oliver and Lin Sutherland also provided input for activities for the International Gemmological Conference in Sydney in 1985.
A kindly man
Former Deputy Director Hal Cogger remembers that not only was Oliver ‘... very highly regarded by most geologists and mineralogists’, [he was also] one of the nicest and kindly men I ever met. I joined the staff as a 16-year-old, and Oliver was kind and generous, while other senior staff were a bit stand-offish to a callow youth’.
Oliver Chalmers died at the age of 95, on 18th October 2006.
Robert Oliver Chalmers interview by Hazel de Berg, for the Hazel de Berg Collection (TRC 1/933), from the Oral History and Folklore Collection of the National Library of Australia.
Minerals in the Australian Museum 1901-1945 by (Robert) Oliver Chalmers, in R.O. Chalmers, Commemorative Papers (Mineralogy, Meteorites, Geology), edited by Lin Sutherland, published in Records of the Australian Museum 1992 suppl 15 p111-128
Report on the reorganisation of the Australian Museum by Inspectors Wurth and Scott of the Public Service Board, 7 May 1931 (AMS031)
History of the GAA – First fifty years 1945-1995 by G.A. Tombs AM, FGAA published on the GAA website
Anecdotes from Jan Brazier, Hal Cogger, Ross Pogson and Lin Sutherland