Neil Wilfred Archbold

Professor of Palaeontology, Deakin University (Australia)

14 August 1950-28 November 2005


      Neil Wilfred Archbold, born 14 August 1950 in Ringwood, Victoria (Australia), was the younger son of Dorothy Alice Archbold (née Fletcher) and the late Stuart James Archbold. The Archbold family was closely associated with the gold mining town of Chewton in central Victoria where Archbold's Gold Treatment Works had been operated by the Archbold family for over 100 years. For Neil, Chewton breathed with the collective toil of his ancestors. Archbold's was purchased in 1997 by Heritage Council Victoria, renovated by them, and launched on 17 May 2003 as a major heritage feature and tourist attraction, coinciding with an Archbold family reunion. Neil and wife Linda were there for the unveiling. Much as Archbold's were renowned for being able to extract gold from rocks that appeared utterly non-auriferous, Neil proved to be capable of extracting valuable scientific information from the most intractable materials.
      As a child Neil was seriously ill but major operations from when Neil was eight until he was twelve, undertaken by the renowned surgeon Sir Albert Ernest Coates (1895-1977), saved his life. There were subsequent operations. Neil's mother has commented that every month, every day that Neil lived beyond age 12 was a bonus. And Neil, revelling in being alive, was grateful each morning he awoke, having survived another night. For him-perhaps more conscious of his being as a consequence of the traumas he had been through-every moment seemed imbued with heightened significance. It seemed there was never a moment that he felt life owed him anything.
      Neil early displayed a passion for all aspects of natural history, but he had a special love of Lepidoptera and arachnids. As a boy he delighted in rearing Emperor Gum Moths from caterpillars. His passion for natural history and especially Lepidoptera was maintained throughout his life. The Archbold garden in Doncaster in eastern suburban Melbourne featured plants with a long history through time (“living fossils”) including ginkgo, Nothofagus (myrtle beech), and araucarias. Among the last was a King Billy Pine that Neil had carried as a seedling from Tasmania. He grew stinging nettles and milkweed (Urtica and Asclepias) to attract butterflies. Neil, as Liz Weldon tells me, had a special penchant was cream-filled butterfly cakes...
      Neil's secondary school education at Camberwell Grammar School in Canterbury, Melbourne, completed in 1969, included several years of studying Chinese; this was of enormous help when he embarked subsequently on studies of palaeobiogeography of the Asia-Australia region. He maintained contact with his old school, making regular visits, sometimes as an invited speaker. At Melbourne University he undertook degrees of BA, funded by a Commonwealth University Scholarship, MSc and then a PhD, completed in 1983. In 1973 he was awarded the C. M. Tattam Scholarship in Geology and was awarded a University of Melbourne Postgraduate Scholarship (1976-1979) enabling him to undertake a PhD on Permian brachiopods. He was fortunate to have had as postgraduate supervisor the late George Thomas, a genial, fatherly soul of exceptionally broad interests who also had a passion for Carboniferous and Permian brachiopods, especially of Western Australia. Not surprisingly, because of this, Neil's research focused on the spectacular Permian faunas of Western Australia, especially the brachiopods, the dominant element in most of those faunas. The pleasure he derived from working with these faunas and the associated stratigraphies continued throughout his life, and it was from them that his interests spread so fruitfully into questions of Late Palaeozoic biogeography and intercontinental stratigraphic alignments.
      While doing his postgraduate degrees, Neil was employed as a part-time tutor (1973-1980) and then full-time tutor (1980-1982) in the Geology Department of the University of Melbourne, during which time he also tutored for the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne. This he continued for 17 years (1973-1989) until full-time employment as Lecturer in Earth Sciences at the Rusden campus of Victoria College (incorporated into Deakin University, 1992) finally necessitated relinquishing some of the stimulus he derived from teaching mature-age students. He nevertheless continued to give talks, laced with gentle wit, to amateur groups such as the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, of which he was a member. For many years (1983-1988) he continued his association with Melbourne University as a Research Associate in its School of Earth Sciences but his new roles at Deakin made continued association with and frequent travel to his alma mater increasingly difficult. He had taught Higher School Certificate evening classes at University High School for three years (1977-1980), had temporary employment as a Scientific Services Officer in the Division of Geomechanics with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Melbourne (1983-1986), and had stints as a contract lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences at Monash University (1984-1988), in the Department of Geology at Melbourne University (1986) and with the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at the Melbourne College of Advanced Education (1988-1989). Neil was a charismatic tutor and lecturer, loved by all for his kindness and the gentle joie de vivre that was characteristic of his lectures, but a truly permanent academic lecturing position somehow seemed to elude him.
      The patchwork of short-term teaching commitments came to an end when he was appointed Senior Tutor in Earth Sciences at Victoria College (1989). It was the start of a new and even more dynamic era in which his diverse talents were given free range and a meteoric rise to academic prominence ensued. Within a year he was promoted to Lecturer (1990-1992), then Senior Lecturer (1993-1995) and finally Professor (personal chair) in Earth Sciences (1996-). During that period, Victoria College metamorphosed into a campus of the rapidly expanding Deakin University (1992). Neil became head of the Earth Sciences sector at Deakin (1993-2000).
      Neil could never refuse appointment to committees where he felt he might be able to facilitate laudable results. At Melbourne University he was a member of the University Council (1978-1979) and a member of its Committees on Research and Graduate Studies (1978-79), the Library (1978), and the Faculties of Arts and Science (both in 1979). At Victoria College he was a member of Faculty of Applied Science Higher Degrees Committee (1991-1992) and the Faculty of Applied Science Research Committee (1991-1992). At Deakin University, Neil served on a dozen or more committees. This notwithstanding, he continued to pour out research papers at an incredible rate. He was a member of Deakin's Research Committee (1993-1997), its Research Committee's Higher Degree Regulations Working Group (1993), its Faculty of Science and Technology Promotions Committee (1993-1994), its School of Aquatic Science and Natural Resources Management (AS&NRM), Research and Graduate Studies Committee (1993-1999), and the AS&NRM Board (1994-1999). The list seems endless. At various times he was Acting Chair of the School of AS&NRM, and Acting Head of the Graduate School, Faculty of Science and Technology. Among numerous other committees, he was the Director of Deakin's Research Priority Area “Global Change and Palaeoenvironments” (2000-2003), and for many years (until 2001) Chair of the Faculty Research and Development Committee. He was a member of Deakin's Academic Board and Chair of Deakin's Higher Degree by Research Committee (both 2004 until his death).
      When Neil joined Deakin University, its Earth Science discipline was a minor entity focused on undergraduate teaching. He soon developed it into a nationally and internationally recognised teaching and research group with a wide range of linkages to national and overseas institutions. He enjoyed challenging students to think critically. To first-year students he showed films such as Armageddon and Deep Impact, requiring them to succinctly critique Hollywood's versions of science. His excursions were always congenial, punctuated by counter lunches at interesting hotels, interludes of sampling the products of favourite bakeries, and intense, freewheeling discussions. There was never a hint of preening professorial detachment nor any air of entitlement during these discussions, nor at any other time. As he said to me on numerous occasions: “I enjoy nothing more than interacting with my students!” Neil received several awards for teaching excellence. He supervised numerous Honours and postgraduate students at Deakin as well as at Melbourne University. For them he was not only a mentor but a role model of scientific and personal integrity-amusing, discerning, always optimistic, always supportive-a reservoir of vast knowledge, a master of the sage perspective.
      Neil served as a member of various advisory committees concerned with the School of Mining, Geology and Metallurgy of the Ballarat University College/University of Ballarat (1989-1998) and of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (1991-1998). Among numerous honours was his appointment (1994 until his death) as Guest Professor at the China University of Mining & Technology.
      Neil was prominent in activities of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), having been a titular member of its Subcommissions on Gondwana Stratigraphy (1986 until his death) and History of Geology (1992 until his death), as well as corresponding member of the Permian and Carboniferous subcommissions (from 1986 and 1992 respectively). He was co-convenor of the Australian Working Group on “Using Permian mixed biotas as gateways for Permian global correlations”, had been a member of the International Geological Correlation Program project 203 on “Permo-Triassic events of the eastern Tethys region and their intercontinental correlation” (1985-1988), and had been a member of the Working Group on the Carboniferous-Permian boundary (1987-1993).
      Neil was a member of many scholarly societies, most importantly the Royal Society of Victoria (from 1973), the Geological Society of Australia (from 1973), the Coal Geology Group of the GSA, the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists, the Paleontological Society (U.S.A) and the Palaeontological Associations of Argentina and Spain. He had been a committee member (1982) and, subsequently treasurer (1983-1985) of the Victorian Division of the Geological Society of Australia (GSA), chairman of the D. E. Thomas Memorial Medal Committee (1985 until his death), a committee member of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists (AAP, 1982-83), and secretary of AAP (1994-1996). Arguably his most important contribution however was his input to the Royal Society of Victoria as honorary librarian for many years, as a member of Council (1992-2005), as Vice-President (1999-2000) and President (2001-2004). During this time Neil became ringleader in defence of the Society against a concerted effort to deflect it from its traditional scientific focus towards becoming an elite club with minimal scientific involvement. That the society's traditional broad-scale scientific focus was maintained and expanded and that its pre-eminence among the Royal Societies in Australia was enhanced owes much to Neil's efforts.
      From 1985 until his death, Neil had received 15 research grants from the Australian Research Council, and for many years was a diligent assessor of ARC research grant submissions. Initially his ARC grants were concerned with plate tectonic relationships within Australia and between it and its neighbours during Permian times, and with time control on the Permian of the Bowen and Sydney Basins, but soon spread to probing patterns of provinciality and their implications worldwide with principal focus on India, South-east Asia, the Tibet-Yunnan region of China, and, eventually, the Late Palaeozoic of South America. Some of the grants were solo, some, especially on palaeobiogeography, being in association with Guang R. Shi, also of Deakin University.
      At the time of his death Neil had produced 161 scientific papers (76 as sole author), but with others still coming through “the mill”. Evidence of the ease with which he established fruitful communication with colleagues globally is indicated by the 40 or more significant co-authors from at least 20 institutions, scattered globally, involved in 85 of his publications. From his initial core area of research on the taxonomy of Permian brachiopods from Western Australia, he spread into considerations of other taxonomic groups (especially bivalves and trilobites), palaeogeography and palaeobiogeography, palaeoclimatology and palaeoecology, oceanic circulation patterns, and global stratigraphic alignments for the Permian and, later, Carboniferous systems. His numerous publications in these areas, especially on palaeobiogeography, contained many commendable exercises in quantitative palaeobiogeography (with Guang R. Shi) in addition to a stream of papers on Late Palaeozoic brachiopods from around the world: the Northern Territory, Timor, Irian Jaya, Thailand, China (Xinjiang, South China, Tibet and West Yunnan), Argentina, India, Russia and Serbia. These were punctuated by a series of papers (numbered 1 to 14, 1980-1997) on the taxonomy of Permian brachiopods from Western Australia published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria. His taxonomic output included more than 150 new species, nearly 40 new genera and subgenera, five new subfamilies and one new family of brachiopods as well a new species of trilobite and one of bivalves. The brachiopod world has included several workaholics whose published output has been gargantuan: James Hall, G. Arthur Cooper, Vladímir Havlícek and a great contemporary, Art Boucot. Neil was very much one of the same ilk, producing six or seven publications a year.
      Neil derived much pleasure from documenting the palaeontology of the marine incursion into the Permian glacially-derived sequences of the Bacchus Marsh district in Victoria; this incursion had escaped more than 150 years of intermittent investigations by many workers. Neil was knowledgeable on the Cainozoic stratigraphy of southeastern Australia, publishing a modicum of work on Cainozoic brachiopods, echinoids and marsupials. One of his major achievements was a pivotal role in publication (1995) during the height of the Yugoslav wars of a comprehensive volume in Serbian and English on the Carboniferous of northwest Serbia by six authors, with himself and Smiljana Stojanovic-Kuzenko contributing the large and copiously illustrated chapter on brachiopods.
      Neil was appalled by the forces of chaos and violence that continue to overtake the lives of individuals and nations, as had occurred in the former Yugoslavia. He believed there was no need for religion and science to be in conflict. He was convinced that the loud, irrational, fundamentalist voices, with their potential for engendering violence-and presently demanding a choice be made-are not representative of the mainstream Judaeo-Christian-Muslim religious communities, nor for that matter of any other sizeable religious group. Neil, nevertheless, was always a scientist to the core, the vast panorama of organic evolution never ceasing to fascinate him, the swift revival of doctrinaire creationism to dismay him.
      Neil had a passion for history, global as well as Australian, and could discourse profoundly on seemingly unrelated topics ranging from the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Australian gold-rush era-and its architectural artefacts. With such interests it was inevitable that he would become a Life Member of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria). He had a passion for old books and antique maps, especially ancient scientific monographs, not just tomes connected with his research, but icons of publishing elegance. Neil's large professional library, including a vast number of reprints and photocopies, has been gifted to the Royal Society of Victoria. The Society has agreed to it being housed under lock-and-key as a special collection in the Deakin University library.
      Throughout his career Neil had probed the early history of the earth sciences in Australia, publishing papers on the debate over the age of the black coals, the history of vertebrate palaeontology in Australia, the 1874 and 2004 transits of Venus, and on Sir Frederick M'Coy, J. E. Tennison Woods, Joseph Jukes and the remarkable brachiopod worker, G. N. Frederiks, a gentle apolitical soul executed during the Great Terror in Stalinist Russia in 1939. Neil's research in the history of the earth sciences became enriched during his later years from association with Doug McCann.
      Neil inherited and greatly enjoyed driving a large Humber car that had been his grandmother's. Reluctantly he had to part with it when upkeep and difficulties in obtaining spare parts became too great. He was a member of the Olive Club, a light-hearted intellectual group of scientists, judges, architects, librarians and engineers which has three-monthly meetings over dinner to discuss matters of general interest, some of moment, some inconsequential. He was also a member of the Skeptics, the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, and the venerable Wallaby Club (founded 1894), an organisation conducting day walks and, like the Olive Club, focused on serious but lively discussion.
      Neil's marriage to Linda Botham in 1984 was pivotal for his career. She made their home in Doncaster not only a base but a haven. Her unflagging support enabled him to focus to great effect on his increasingly vast spectrum of interests. Despite frail health, he travelled overseas to participate in conferences in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Oman, South Africa and the former USSR (Tartaria). In late 1997 he was joint-organiser of the Strzelecki International Symposium on “The Permian of Eastern Tethys” in Melbourne, and was one of the three editors of the large volume derived from that meeting and published a year later by his beloved Royal Society of Victoria. In later years he developed especially close relationship with colleagues in Argentina, four of whom visited Australia and became firm family friends. Neil travelled to Argentina three times and established very warm research and personal linkages with several Argentinian palaeontologists, especially Tristan Simanauskas, Gabriela Cisterna, Arturo Taboada and Alejandra Pagani. He fell ill following participation in Gondwana 12, the Twelfth International Gondwana Congress (6-11 November), in Mendoza, Argentina, at which he made a conference presentation. Argentinian colleagues flew to Mendoza to help in every imaginable way but, on 28 November at the Clinica de Cuyo in Mendoza, with wife Linda at his bedside, he passed away. A large community of friends-about 300 of them-participated in a memorial service at Wantirna, an outer suburb of Melbourne, on 14 December 2005.
      The connecting thread through Neil's odyssey had been pragmatism, a journey that nevertheless found beauty in every corner. Neil would discourse equally kindly with the brilliant or slow-witted, the shy or overly ambitious, the diffident or confrontational, the culturally bereft, and even with insolent con artists. There was never the cop out “Too bad! That's the way it is!” He had a genuine social conscience, a humanism that looked kindly on even the hardest face.
      Neil was tenacious and meticulous, a tireless and profound figure who never lost sight of the magic of the world around him, and courageously evaluated and took on board new data and new theories. His curiosity drove him to diversify. He loved innovation, but was wary of fashion. His devotion to his science and his willingness to share his knowledge and expertise-and tirelessness in doing so-set him apart. Though unflaggingly self-critical and self-effacing, he had a consuming desire to produce and produce-as a scientist there was a momentum to him; he seemed unstoppable. He revelled in being alive; he revelled in the musicality of words. Neil's physical frailty and bouts of illness had made him more tolerant than most of us, more compassionate. In this he paralleled another great brachiopod worker, the late J. G. ('Jess') Johnson, who produced voluminously and perceptively throughout most of a professional career attached to artificial diaphragms. Such people are role models for all of us, even the physically able-bodied.
      Those who knew Neil were always amazed by his buoyancy, despite his manifest frailty. His ingrained empathy for the human condition and his profound sense of social responsibility seemed to become more resilient as time went on. There were surely moments of despair but, if so, he kept these to himself. Neil was unique.

Compilation of this obituary has been facilitated by information supplied by
Linda Archbold, Monica Campi, Bernie Joyce, Guang Shi, Fons VandenBerg and Liz Weldon.

John A. Talent
Macquarie University