Joe Gentilli (Griffith Taylor Medal) Citation

Conferred Fremantle, June 1998

The IAG periodically awards its Griffith Taylor Medal to geographers who have made an exceptionally distinguished contribution to professional geography in Australia. It is the Institute’s premier award and commemorates the name of the Institute’s first president, the first head of a geography department in Australia (Sydney, 76 years ago).

The medal has been awarded only twice before; to Ann Marshall in Adelaide in 1989, and to Les Heathcote in Hobart 1997. The third award of the Griffith Taylor medal is to be made today to Joseph Gentilli.

It is appropriate that the medallion is to be presented here in Fremantle. For it was near this very place nearly sixty years ago that Joseph Gentilli arrived here on board the RMS Ormonde bound from Italy to Sydney. Gentilli did not continue on to Sydney, but stayed here in WA. One wonders what his impressions were of this place. If George Seddon, the conference’s keynote speaker on Wednesday, can say in his autobiographical note I was ill-prepared for Western Australia, and I think that was a common experience…I just didn’t like WA; the country was all wrong, and I felt cheated. And he had just come from Victoria. What then was the situation like for this young geographer from Europe admitted to Australia with refugee status in September 1939?

Western Australians know of one response to that question. That within months Joe Gentilli was teaching statistics within economics at the UWA, and within a couple of years he was producing maps and analysing spatial patterns of WA agriculture. They also know that he was a Founder, Secretary, President and driving force behind the establishment and development of the Dante Society, Alliance Francaise, Council of Jewish Affairs, the Naturalists’ Club, and Youth Hostels Association and many other multicultural and community organisations.

West Australians also know Jo Gentilli for his contributions to science though not all would be familiar with his 150 scientific papers and several books produced in Italian, French, and English, including his major volume in the World Survey of Climatology Climates of Australia and New Zealand published in 1972, dog-eared in all libraries in Australia, and acknowledged by the 1997 book of similar title by Sturman and Tapper. In this context they know him for his pioneering work on the Leeuwin Current, 1972; the Australian cloud band 1973 and 1979, and the link between ozone and respiratory disease.

Gentilli has received many awards for his community and professional service to the discipline of geography both within the State and beyond, including Italy.

In 1996 Joseph Gentilli became an Officer of the General Division of the Order of Australia, AO

“for service to the study and teaching of geography, especially in the areas of climatology and immigration studies”

And it is precisely in that context that the IAG wishes to honour Joseph Gentilli.

In 1964 when the Department of Geography at UWA was established Gentilli formally rejoined the university geography fraternity 30 years after he had started as a lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Florence in 1934.

Geodiversity is the title of this IAG Conference. What this means is that Geography is a diverse discipline, to some even encyclopaedic which includes topics such as agriculture, place-names, typhoons, volcanoes, oceans, climate, population, migration etc - all of which Jo Gentilli has written about. But also in spite of that diversity, geography has a coherence that few appreciate and less practice. Joseph Gentilli is such a practitioner who has searched and still searches for an understanding of spatial distributions, patterns and interactions, and integration between things physical and things human.

Gentilli has maintained his interest in spatial statistics. In the March 1997 issue of the Australian Geographical Studies (the special issue on Cultural Geography and Cultural Policy) there is an article that illustrates his life-long interest in the statistical correlates of spatial distributions, in this case the academic performance scores of students in state secondary schools in metropolitan Perth. A year earlier, in the April 1996 issue of AGS, his topic was a quite different one which recognised “The excellent data obtained by the authors on the concentration of heavy metals in bed sediments in South Creek, NSW” That data, Gentilli maintained justifies “further interest is a search for underlying general principles, to use these analytical data towards a broader synthesis”.

These two recent examples perhaps sum up two enduring aspects of Joseph Gentilli: a willingness to acknowledge and praise the good works of others; and to demonstrate that the search for underlying fundamentals is an endless one in geography.

Fellow geographers I would like you to join with me in honouring one of the founding fathers of academic geography in Australia and one who the editors of AGS recently acknowledged as “Australia’s longest serving geographer”. The IAG has previously acknowledged its debt to Dr Gentilli by according him Honorary Life Membership.

The Griffith Taylor Medal is awarded for distinguished contributions to Australian Geography, and no one has made a more distinguished or sustained contribution to Australian geography than Joseph Gentilli, AO, OMRI. Hon Dsc (WA).

The award will be presented by one of Dr Gentilli’s very first students of geography, Mr Peter Waterman.

Citation prepared by Professor Roger McLean.

©Copyright 2023 Institute of Australian Geographers Incorporated. ABN: 97471418446.