David Henry Blake: Rock-solid ethic inspired search for geological truth

David Henry Blake: Rock-solid ethic inspired search for geological truth


Born August 22, 1937; died June 11, 2014.

GLOBALLY RENOWNED: Acclaimed geologist David Henry Blake died in June after an accident.

GLOBALLY RENOWNED: Acclaimed geologist David Henry Blake died in June after an accident.

A true gentleman, and a passionate and committed geologist. These two sentiments were the most commonly expressed at the funeral of David Henry Blake, who died in Canberra Hospital on June 11, 2014, from complications following a cycling accident.

Recognised and much-admired as a outstanding Australian government geologist, Blake was the exemplar of quiet achievement, and a gentle and caring family man with a passion for sport. Held in high esteem in Australia and internationally, his wide field experience, not only at home, but also in Iceland, PNG and Canada, resulted in 146 papers and monographs, many of major significance.


David Blake was born in Hertford in England on August 22, 1937, the second of five children born to John and Helen Blake.

After high school at Hertford Grammar, and two years of national service in the Royal Navy, on HMS Victory, Blake studied geology at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University of London, graduating in 1961 with first-class honours and winning the University Medal. He then began a PhD, based on fieldwork in Iceland. This must have held a very special place in his heart, for his association with Iceland did not end there. In later years, he was sought out by Icelandic geologists, and he revisited the country in 2000 with family members. As an indication of the regard in which he was held in Iceland, some flags there were flown at half-mast on the day of his funeral.

In 1964, straight after gaining his PhD, Blake emigrated to Australia, joining the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics (BMR, now Geoscience Australia), where his first task was to study the Herberton Tin Field in North Queensland. The BMR and Geological Survey of Queensland had been working in this region since 1962, but it was left to Blake to complete the work and write up the results, which the BMR published in 1972.

In 1965, with an enthusiasm and thoroughness for which he became well-known, Blake mapped the New Guinea islands of Bougainville and Buka. The field work, in a region of challenging logistics, geography and geology, was completed in one three-month season.

In 1967, Blake moved to CSIRO, where he carried out further work in PNG. This enabled him to continue his vulcanological interests, and he was the first to find evidence of very large volcanic eruptions in the recent past at New Britain's Witori volcano, now recognised as one of PNG's potentially most dangerous volcanoes, and that the volcano Giluwe, in the New Guinea highlands, had erupted beneath the glaciers that covered it during the Pleistocene.

Blake returned to the BMR in 1970, and from that time until his retirement in 1999, he worked in central and northern Australia (except for 1976, which he spent in Canada as part of an exchange program with the Geological Survey of Canada), first in the Granites-Tanami region and then in Mt Isa district. The Granites-Tanami mapping completed the geological coverage of the Australian continent at 1:250,000 scale.

The Mt Isa work was to add to earlier BMR work carried out on the adjoining area of Cloncurry to Mt Isa, between 1969 and 1975. Blake's colleague, Geoff Derrick, the principal geologist of this earlier work, has written: "It was during this period that I learnt a little more of Dave the accomplished geologist who was always seeking the geological truth, nearly always working from first principles from whence a picture emerged – a view of the geology which was field-based and all the better for that. Dave never settled for, and was not interested in, the status quo, and if his geology took him to some place few others had ventured previously, then so be it. It was a case of letting the intellectual challenges begin! Our debates over time were stimulating and challenging, and no one could be intellectually lazy when talking geology with Dave."

Blake's career-long list of publications is impressive. In an astonishingly short time, he helped produce many major geological reports for which the BMR was highly regarded. His papers and reports are models of geoscientific writing – concise, clear and well-organised. He was a stickler for using the English language properly. His major monographs, BMR Bulletins, arguably reflect a golden age of BMR output.

Blake also worked in the Kimberley region around 1992, in concert with the Geological Survey of Western Australia, and he was co-compiler and editor of a seminal and multidisciplinary report, published in 2000, describing the geology and economic potential of East Kimberley mafic and ultramafic intrusions. He also co-authored the best-selling geological guides to the Bungle Bungle Range, and Kakadu and Nitmiluk national parks.

From the list of projects and publications with which Blake was involved, one could guess he was a geologist of some note, but as his son, William, said at his funeral: "When I say he was a geologist, that's exactly what I mean – it's what he was ... it was what he loved doing, and if someone was willing to pay him for doing something he loved then that was fine by him ... he was one of those fortunate few."

Blake took a redundancy from the Australian Geological Survey Organisation (formerly BMR) in 1999, one of those crazy times – now sadly returned – when governments decide in their ignorance that they can actually do without science. But that didn't mean Blake stopped being a geologist. He continued to investigate the rocky outcrops of the world, do freelance work at AGSO, and have articles published in magazines such as The Australian Geologist. In fact, he had an article published in TAG in March of this year.

It is appropriate that Blake's last publication was on the topic that most interested him from the very start of his geological career – net-vein complexes, where light-coloured granitic magma has intimately intermingled with dark mafic magma. In his final article in The Australian Geologist, Blake expresses his surprise on finding evidence of a net-veined complex in the first rock he hit with his hammer on his first day of field work in Australia.

Since that time, he goes on to say: "I have mapped and described many other Australian net-veined complexes, all previously unrecognised, ranging in age from Mesozoic to Archean ... naturally, not all my colleagues have agreed with my views on net-veined complexes. This has led to numerous discussions, some of which have been surprisingly vehement."

David Blake is survived by his wife, Robin, whom he met in the Canberra hostel where he lived when he first arrived in Australia, and whom he married in 1966, and by his four children, William, Susan, Harold and Alan, and their families. He will be missed also by his many friends, not least by one who has had Parkinson's disease since 1987 and whom he visited almost every day for the past few years.

Written with the assistance of William Blake, Geoff Derrick and Wally Johnson.

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