Antarctic community mourns loss of science leader

Portrait of man at the Antarctic Division's headquarters in 1988.
Professor Pat Quilty was a hard-working, intellectual, gentleman scientist, who mentored a generation of Antarctic scientists. (Photo: Glenn Jacobson)
Man standing amongst rocks at Marine Plain in 1988.Professor Pat Quilty and research assistant Natalie Schroder at the site of the fossil dolphin discovery (Australodelphis mirus) at Marine Plain in the Vestfold Hills. Shell fossils at Marine Plain.

Former Australian Antarctic Division Chief Scientist, Professor Patrick (Pat) Quilty AM, who passed away on 26 August, played a leading role in the international Antarctic science community.

After graduating in 1962 with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree from the University of Western Australia, Professor Quilty first visited Antarctica in 1965 as a field palaeontologist with the University of Wisconsin. He received his PhD from the University of Tasmania in 1969.

Professor Quilty led the Australian Antarctic Division’s science program between 1980 and 1999 and published more than 200 scientific research papers.

In interviews, Professor Quilty said that one of his career highlights was his discovery of fossil whale and dolphin bones in 1984, at Marine Plain in the Vestfold Hills near Australia’s Davis station. It is the only site in Antarctica where fossil vertebrates have been found, which are dated after the continent was glaciated 34 million years ago (Ma).

“We were wandering around the edges of one of the lakes, and then about 10-15 metres away I saw a pile of fragments on the ground…I went over…and put a bit of it under the hand lens….and it was bone. I immediately recognised the significance of it, because here was vertebrate material, 3.5–4 million years old. The only other vertebrate material known from Antarctica is 40 million years old or more.

“I didn't know what I'd found…..A couple of larger ones that told me it wasn't just a piece of leg bone or a rib, it was something interesting. And so I wrapped these...sketched the area, photographed it, numbered all the large fragments, re-photographed it, collected it carefully in bags. I brought this lot back to Australia - and it turned out to be the first of the dolphins. “

Through the discovery of fossil vertebrates and microfossils in Pliocene (ca. 2.6–5.3 Ma) sediments, Professor Quilty theorised that Antarctica was considerably warmer at various times in the past than present and suggested that changes towards the present glacial regime were later and more rapid than previously thought.

This discovery earned Professor Quilty international recognition and he had five fossils named after him. To recognise Marine Plain’s exceptional scientific interest and relevance to the palaeoecological and palaeoclimatic record of Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty Committee designated the site an Antarctic Special Protected Area (ASPA).

Professor Quilty was active in international Antarctic leadership, serving as vice-president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) from 1994–1998. He also served as Chair of the 20th SCAR meeting in Hobart in 1988, as well as symposia on the Vestfold Hills and Macquarie Island.

At a national level, he was President of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists, and Federal Secretary of the Geological Society of Australia. He also served on both state and federal councils of the Australian & New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. Professor Quilty convened the 17th Australian Geological Convention in Hobart in 2004, and the Mawson Symposium for the Royal Society of Tasmania in 2011.

After leaving the Australian Antarctic Division, Professor Quilty undertook teaching and research at the University of Tasmania. In later years, he was Honorary Research Professor at the University of Tasmania’s School of Earth Sciences.

Professor Quilty’s significant contribution to science was recognised throughout his career. He was the recipient of the United States Antarctic Services Medal 1974, Royal Society of Tasmania Medal 1996, Distinguished Alumnus - University of Tasmania 1997, Member of the Order of Australia (AM) 1997 and the Phillip Law Medal 2016.

The Australian Antarctic Names Committee named Quilty Bay in the Larsemann Hills, near Davis station, in recognition of his contributions.

The United States Antarctic Research Program named Quilty Nunataks, a group of nunataks extending over eight miles in West Antarctica, to recognise his contribution as field party geologist for their program.

Corporate Communications
Australian Antarctic Division

A passionate gentleman scientist

Pat Quilty was a close colleague and friend of many years, who mentored a generation of Antarctic scientists. He enriched the lives of all who had been fortunate to know this hard-working, intellectual, gentleman scientist.

I observed another side of Pat Quilty – a public persona reflecting a gregarious, easily engaged and popular person, while privately placing family, including Irish ancestry, and faith above all; and very conscious of opinions.

In discussing a high profile voyage to Antarctica in summer 1985–86, on which there were many distinguished passengers, including international and national researchers, Pat revealed how chuffed he was that only the Voyage Leader received more mentions than he did, in the index of a book describing the voyage. It was acknowledged that this assessment was unscientific.

The book was Sitting on Penguins, written by academic, historian and author, the late Stephen Murray-Smith, who was sent on the voyage by the Minister, Barry Jones, as an unpaid ‘Ministerial Observer’, with the charge to “give me your views on what you think is going on”.

Murray-Smith met Pat for the first time just prior to sailing. A week later, after an emotional day inspecting Mawson’s Hut and the site of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition at Commonwealth Bay, Murray-Smith recalls returning to the ship...

“And so to that shower, and Pat Quilty into the cabin for a whisky, and we talk for an hour or more with affection and warmth of comrades who feel they have done something dramatic together – about the day, and the place, and Patrick’s ancestors, and much more.”

Later Murray-Smith and other journalists visited Pat at Marine Plain, where he was doing more work on the fossils he had discovered. Six pages of the book are devoted to Marine Plain and the dolphin and whale fossils, with Murray-Smith stating: “All the way to Davis in the ship Pat, when he had time left from talking about icebergs, had been spouting about his dolphin”. Such was the effect Pat’s passion had on those that met him.

Des Lugg
Former Head of Polar Medicine, Australian Antarctic Division

Vale Pat

When Pat Quilty joined the Australian Antarctic Division in 1980 the glaciology section, where I worked, was still based at the University of Melbourne, so my initial personal contacts with him were limited. Even so, it quickly became obvious that Pat had a genuine enthusiasm for, and strongly supported, all disciplines of scientific research. He always maintained his own active research interests throughout his time as an administrator, with a microscope always prominent in his office.

After spending time with Pat on Nella Dan, and especially after glaciology moved to Hobart, I got to know the other facets of his personality. He also had a keen interest in the history of science, and especially Antarctic exploration and science, and he was an excellent raconteur, always delighted to share his interest and knowledge. Pat also had joie de vivre, a sense of humour and enjoyment and appreciation of the finer side of life, which combined to give him a positive outlook, whatever happened. He never took a bad turn of events personally or was bitter about anything. Every experience was just an opportunity to move on to something new and larger (and develop a story around it).

Pat had an overwhelmingly positive conviction of his own self-worth and status in life. But this was always expressed with honesty and good humour. During the “career-summary” seminar he gave on retirement from the Antarctic Division, a small group in the audience ran a competition ($2 per entry) to guess how many “famous” people he would mention (with double points for vice royalty and significant religious figures). The final number was only 26 because, in the last half of his hour-long seminar, Pat spoke more about the philosophy and ethics of science than his personal involvement. Instead of “winner-take-all” we decided to turn the prize into liquid refreshments for an after-work BBQ. Pat caught us laughing about the arrangements, asked what it was about, and when told was delighted and asked if he could also come. He duly arrived bearing two bottles of bubbly to celebrate his retirement.

Retirement from the Antarctic Division was not a retirement from science, and Pat continued as an active researcher, an enthusiastic advocate for science and a disseminator of Antarctic information. Over the last 25 years I spent a lot of time with him on the small flight deck of a B747, jointly providing commentary for tourist overflights of Antarctica. We were both inspired to continue doing these flights by the delight and exuberance of those seeing the continent for the first time. Since we covered somewhat different aspects of what you can see from 20,000 feet above the ice, we worked well as a team. Invariably though, Pat’s commentary was lengthier than mine.

Ian Allison
Former Program Leader, Australian Antarctic Division