Research website of Dr Gilbert Price

The hammer that shaped a university

Nearly every profession has its own iconic piece of equipment. Doctors check vital signs with stethoscopes; photographers capture images with cameras; and chefs dice ingredients with knives. But if you’re an earth scientist, that critical go-to piece of gear is almost always the trusty rock hammer.

Andy Dufresne from The Shawshank Redemption sought solace in his hammer. Not just as a means of breaking out of jail, but to keep him sane, especially as he spent his days shaping and carving lumps of soapstone into chess pieces.

Screenshot of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) using his rock hammer in The Shawshank Redemption (source: Castle Rock Entertainment).

Screenshot of Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) using his rock hammer in The Shawshank Redemption (source: Castle Rock Entertainment).

For the practising geologist or palaeontologist, a similar kind of comfort is wrought by the humble hammer.

Imagine using one to split a rock: the rock breaks in half to reveal the fossilised remains of an ancient, extinct creature. You are the first person in all of human history to ever set eyes on it. The fossil tells you a story, a small part of a much larger jigsaw perhaps, but a story about the history of our planet. And all this from the simple strike of a hammer.

So the rock hammer is by far the most valued bit of gear for any earth scientist. You can probably imagine then, the emotions among my team and I when we first laid our eyes on the rock hammer that once belonged to the legendry Professor Dorothy Hill.

 

A science great

Dorothy was a giant, not only of palaeontology and geology, but of science more broadly. And she has an incredible legacy at The University of Queensland.

Dorothy Hill

Dorothy Hill

She first attended UQ as an undergraduate student in the mid-1920s, when the university’s total enrolments numbered around 700; today, that figure is in excess of 50,000. She graduated with Honours in 1928, later accepting a scholarship to travel to England  to undertake a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Dorothy graduated after only two years; an incredible achievement in itself, but all the more remarkable in that she was only the second Queenslander to earn their stripes at that prestigious institution.

When she moved back to Australia in 1937, Dorothy took up a lectureship in the geology department at UQ. Times were tough coming out of the Great Depression, and not made any easier during World War II. Dorothy’s research was put on-hold temporarily when she took up a position ciphering code for five-star American army general Douglas MacArthur.

A post-war Australia saw Dorothy’s scientific pursuits flourish. Her research specialty was in ancient fossil corals, an area in which she eventually published more than 100 papers. She named numerous new species previously unknown to science. This earned her widespread recognition and the award of several prizes and fellowships.

Dorothy was also a great servant of science. In 1947 she became President of the Royal Society of Queensland, the State’s oldest scientific institution. In 1970 she assumed the role of President of the Australian Academy of Sciences. And in 1971 Dorothy became President of the Professorial Board at UQ. These achievements were no mean feat. In fact, Dorothy was a trailblazer in that she was the first female president ever in each of those roles.

Dorothy Hill in 1987, standing below her sandstone grotesque where it adorns the Richards Building in the Great Court.

Dorothy Hill in 1987, standing below her sandstone grotesque where it adorns the Richards Building in the Great Court.

Dorothy died in 1997, but is today still recognised widely among the scientific community. She is honoured in numerous ways, including having a UQ library named after her, a PhD scholarship, a couple of national science prizes, and even a drill rig. She is also the only woman scientist depicted in the sandstone carvings of UQ’s Great Court.

 

Dorothy’s hammer

My team had heard the legend of Dorothy’s hammer and were keen to get our hands on it. After several inquiries, we were excited to learn that it was in the possession the School of Earth Sciences’ Professor Gregg Webb, who happily passed it to us.

To first lay eyes on the hammer, one wouldn’t be all that impressed. It’s a very simple design: a plain hickory wooden handle, with a very rusty, ridged, angular steel head. It lacks the flair and curves of most modern rock hammers. But it has an underlying appeal, especially if you know its history, for it is more than just a hammer: it’s a symbol of curiosity, exploration and determination. It’s Dorothy Hill’s rock hammer.

We dare not use the hammer ourselves, thus, preserving knowledge that the last time it was struck to reveal an ancient fossil, it was at the hands of Dorothy herself.

We’ve made a 3D model of the hammer, with the intention that it will be used in an upcoming exhibition celebrating the life of Dorothy. But we share it here in the hope that it can bring the same level of inspiration to others that it brought to us.

This post first appeared on UQ’s Small Change blog.

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Gilbert Price

Vertebrate palaeontologist at The University of Queensland
Gilbert has diverse research interests that include the study of Ice Age megafauna extinctions, climate and human impacts on coral reefs, and development of new fossil dating methods.