Bruce Thom (Griffith Taylor Medal)

Citation for the Griffith Taylor Medal

Professor Bruce Thom
Conferred Adelaide, April 2004

The Institute of Australian Geographers periodically awards its Griffith Taylor Medal to geographers who have made a distinguished and sustained contribution to geography in Australia. It is the Institute’s highest award and is named after (Thomas) Griffith Taylor, the dominant figure in Australian geography in the first half of the 20th Century. Taylor was one of the founders of the Institute of Australian Geographers and in 1961 was our first President. The Griffith Taylor medal has been presented to just four Australian geographers. Notably, yet fortuitously, given the venue of this year’s IAG Conference here in Adelaide, three recipients of the medal have been from South Australia. Appropriately, two of those medal holders are here at the dinner, and we welcome Leslie Heathcote and Fay Gale. Tonight they will be joined by the 2004 medallist, Bruce Graham Thom (The other two medal winners are the late Ann Marshall and the late Joseph Gentilli of Western Australia).

Sydney born and bred, Bruce Thom has always been a geographer with an abiding interest in coasts. As he remarked in his Presidential Address to the IAG Conference in 1987: “I am proud of coastal Sydney… I was born within spitting distance of Bondi… (So)… it is no wonder I have devoted my career to coastal studies”. In that address he also acknowledged his debt to three past presidents of the IAG: Joe Jennings (for his capacity to stimulate all who came to see him); Jack Davies (who demonstrated to the world the contribution a geographic perspective could bring to understanding coastal systems); and Trevor Langford-Smith, Bruce’s first mentor in coastal geomorphology who gave him the opportunity as a third year undergraduate to do a study of Coogee beach and headlands, and later to research in the Port Stephens-Myall lakes area.

Awarded a University Medal at The University of Sydney, Bruce Thom, like several of his honours contemporaries from geography departments throughout Australasia in the early 1960s, left home to do a PhD degree at the Coastal Studies Institute, Louisiana State University. Here, Bruce undertook ecological and geomorphological studies of sand barriers and deltas at Tabasco and Campeche on the coast of Mexico, as well as completing a major study on the enigmatic ‘Carolina Bays’ of South Carolina between 1964 and 1966. Now, with a wealth of coastal field and analytical techniques under his belt, as well as a PhD in coastal studies, it was time to transfer those skills to the coasts he had left behind, and come back to Australia.

But that did not happen immediately. Instead of the golden sand beaches of Australia, Bruce Thom’s first post-PhD job was way inland, in fact on the Labrador-Ungava border in Quebec, Canada, as Director of McGill University’s Sub-Arctic Research Laboratory at Schefferville. Few geographers know of this important part of Bruce Thom’s career, but there in the tundra and permafrost Bruce and wife Irene had their two children (Graham and Jeanette). It was also a time to complete papers on the Mexican and Carolina coasts and, significantly, to apply some of those recently used concepts and skills to improve understanding of permafrost and its delimitation. The results were published in several papers. The Timmins 4 Permafrost Experimental Site initiated by Bruce Thom in 1968 became a prize location for monitoring permafrost processes.

In the three decades following his return to Australia in 1970, Bruce Thom established himself as the ‘father figure’ of Australian coastal studies. His geomorphic research (with its conceptual and methodological roots set firmly in the LSU tradition and Schefferville experience) dealt with three different time scales and themes and was carried out in all states in Australia. These included: i) a consideration of short term beach process-form interaction; ii) the magnitude and frequency of coastal change at seasonal, inter-annual and decadal scales through coastal monitoring; iii) the formation and modification of sand barriers and estuarine deltaic complexes in the Late Quaternary using morphostratigraphic techniques.

Dozens of papers have resulted from each of these research themes, as well as from his attempts to unify the different approaches within an overarching morphodynamic framework; a framework that has gained universal acceptance. Undertaken with a host of collaborators, colleagues, and students – all of whom acknowledge his stimulus and guidance – there is no doubt that Bruce Thom’s coastal research will remain one of his greatest legacies.

But, if Bruce Thom had been a dominant figure in coastal science for the past three decades, his role as a passionate advocate for geography is of no less consequence. Many in this audience will know that Bruce Thom has held academic positions at the Australian National University, University of New South Wales at Duntroon, and the University of Sydney. He has also been a senior university administrator and, indeed, was the fourth President of the IAG to become a Vice Chancellor of an Australian university (New England). He is presently a Visiting Professor at the University of New South Wales and an Emeritus Professor at the University of Sydney.

Bruce Thom’s contribution to professional geography in Australia is also well known, particularly as the Chair of the Organising Committee of the highly successful International Geographical Congress held in Sydney in 1988. In recent years he has been a geographic practitioner at a number of different levels, including Federal and State government. He was Chair of the Australian State of the Environment Committee which produced the State of the Environment Report in 2001. He has been long-time Chair of the Coastal Council of New South Wales, an independent watchdog for coastal management in that state. He is a member of the influential Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, and an author of the Group’s report Blueprint for a Living Continent published in July 2003 (which proposed an end to broadscale clearing of remnant vegetation, clarification of water property rights, and government purchase of urgently needed environmental flows for the Murray River and its tributaries) as well as the Brigalow Declaration of November 2003 about land clearing in Queensland. He has also been a special guest of Margaret Throsby on her classical music programme on the ABC!

This concern for the Australian environment, its condition, utilisation and carrying capacity is something that both Griffith Taylor and Bruce Thom shared. Nor is that where the similarity between the two ends. Both are graduates of Sydney University and have been heads of Geography there. Both spent time in the United States and Canada, and both returned to Australia to make major contributions to Australian geography, including as Presidents of the Institute of Australian Geographers. Both were prolific publishers and both have brought geographic perspectives to the big environmental issues of the day.

No doubt Bruce Thom will continue to provide such a perspective, and to support geography and geographers in Australia. But, for the moment the Institute wishes to acknowledge his sustained contribution to Australian geography over the past few decades by awarding him the Griffith Taylor Medal.

[Source: Institute of Australian Geographers Newsletter, Number 50, July 2004, pp. 3-5.]