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Rev William Branwhite Clarke, 1798-1878

William Clarke, geologist and Anglican clergyman, was born in Suffolk, England. At Cambridge University he developed an interest in literature and the classics, and was also greatly influenced by Rev Adam Sedgewick, Woodwardian professor of geology. He became a fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1826. Clarke’s intellectual interests were varied. In the 1830s Clarke contributed papers on geology, zoology and meteoric phenomena to the Magazine of Natural History and the Proceedingspublication of the Geological Society.

Rev William Branwhite Clarke, Secretary and Curator, 1841-1843
Rev William Branwhite Clarke, Secretary and Curator, 1841-1843 Clarke emigrated to Australia with his family in 1838, and became known as the ‘Father of Australian Geology’. Image IRN: 1540063 Image: Appleby Studios
© Australian Museum

Clarke emigrated to Australia with his family in 1838, partly due to his slim chance of church advancement but also for his health. He joined the Museum’s Committee of Superintendence in 1840. In 1841 he was made Secretary and Curator. He immediately complained about the ‘insufficiency of accommodation’ for the Museum's collections, arguing that the Museum's rooms at the Surveyor-General’s former residence were ‘inadequate for the purpose of arrangement and reception.’ Late that year the Museum moved to its final temporary home, at the Court House in Darlinghurst.

Clarke himself remained resident in Parramatta during his tenure, ministering to parishes at Castle Hill and Dural. He did not involve himself with the management of the Museum nor its scientific activities. Management of the museum was largely the responsibility of the Collector and Preserver, William Sheridan Wall.

In 1843 during a widespread economic depression, the Legislative Council abolished the position of Secretary and Curator. Although unhappy with this decision, Clarke maintained his connection to the Museum for over 30 years, remaining on the Committee of Superintendence and its successor the Board of Trustees until 1874.

Contributions to geology

Clarke’s important contributions to geology, particularly his work on the age of the NSW coal deposits, and on the discovery and investigation of Australia’s gold resources, earned him the title of ‘Father of Australian Geology’.

Clarke was a founder of the Royal Society of NSW in 1876, and its Clarke medal honours his work. The medal was awarded to George Bennett in 1890. Several other scientists of the Australian Museum have subsequently been honoured.