ESHG Biographies

Dorothy Hill - image courtesy John Jell. Portrait by Lola McCausland (1967), collection of The University of Queensland - reproduced with permission.

David Roger Oldroyd 

David Roger Oldroyd (1936–2014) was born at Luton, 30 miles (48 km) north of London, and lived in a nearby country village for his first ten years. In the war years he was sent, with many other children, to the Lake District in the north of England, to escape from bombing raids. 

David’s father had hoped that he would become a medical doctor, so David took appropriate subjects in high school, but found some of the teachers uninspiring. In the event he spent an extra year at high school to improve his marks for entrance to Cambridge University. In 1955 he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, hoping to study medicine, but there were no available places, so he entered Science, thinking to study physics. However he found the physics teaching dull, so concentrated on Chemistry, with some study of Geology and Mathematics. His major study for graduation was Chemistry, but, as he said, he preferred Geology, and in particular the fieldwork. 

David Roger Oldroyd - image courtesy Barry Cooper

One of the problems which affected his science studies was that he had learnt to play the cello, and he spent a considerable time on this ‘amusement’. Another was the death of his mother, Gladys, just before graduation exams, so his final results were not good enough to allow him to continue for a research degree. Thus he became a high school teacher at John Lyon School, Harrow, northwest of London. He also married [Elizabeth] Jane Dawes, whom he met when she was an oboist in the highly selective National Youth Orchestra in which David also played. 

However, several years into teaching, David learnt of a Master’s degree in History and Philosophy of Science. He felt that a Master’s degree might help his advancement in the education field, and so attended the evening course at University College, London, three evenings a week. While he found the history lectures interesting he thought the philosophy lectures were poor.  

It was the Cuban crisis which persuaded the family to migrate to New Zealand in 1962, to where the Government was prepared to pay the family’s fares, and the move would prove to be an adventure. One problem was that David had not taken the History and Philosophy of Science Master’s exam before they left England. However, the following year, London University sent the exam to him in New Zealand, and after he passed that he was asked to write a dissertation, choosing the subject himself. He decided on ‘Geology in New Zealand prior to 1900’. This gave the family the opportunity to travel to various parts of the country on camping ‘holidays’. The thesis was passed, and was one of the earliest summaries of early New Zealand geological work. It is still referred to today. 

David taught at two New Zealand high schools, in Hastings and then Christchurch, enjoying the second more because of its ‘English’ approach, although he was not enthusiastic about its emphasis on rugby and religion. 
David Oldroyd: image courtesy Barry Cooper. 

Having obtained his Master’s degree David thought it might be possible to obtain a University teaching position, because there was some interest in Australia and New Zealand in setting up courses in the history and philosophy of science, such as had become wellestablished in the USA and elsewhere. No such courses existed in the antipodes, but some visiting academics in this field helped to create interest. When the University of New South Wales advertised such a position David, being the sole applicant, was appointed even though he had no publications and only a Master’s degree. However, his permanent appointment was dependant on him obtaining a doctorate within five years. 

Receiving advice from his earlier examiner, Victor Eyles, doyen of English historians of geology, David made contact with Dr. Tom Vallance, at the University of Sydney Geology School, who was already known for his historical work on Australian geology. The contact was the beginning of a life-long friendship. David found the study and writing of a doctoral thesis relatively easier than his previous studies under exam conditions. He decided on the topic: ‘The relationship between mineralogy and chemistry’. A period of study leave greatly helped the completion of his thesis, entitled ‘From Paracelsus to Haüy: the development of mineralogy in relation to chemistry’, and it was successfully submitted in 1974. 

Based on his own lecture courses, David published his first book ‘Darwinian Impacts: An Introduction to the Darwinian Revolution’ (1980, reprinted 1983, 1988). This was followed (1986) by ‘The Arch of Knowledge: an Introductory Study of the History and Philosophy and Methodology of Science’, reprinted 1989, and later translated into Italian, Spanish and Chinese (2008). 

In 1990, ‘The Highlands Controversy: Constructing Geological Knowledge through Fieldwork in Nineteenth-Century Britain’, perhaps his best-known work, was published. David suggested that this was the reason, that, shortly after, in 1994, he was awarded the Sue Tyler Friedman Medal of the Geological Society of London. Five years later his work was acknowledged by the American History of Science confraternity, with the History of Geology Award of the Geological Society of America in 1999, followed by a Centenary Medal from the Commonwealth of Australia Government. David was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1994, the first historian of science to be so elected, and in 2002 he was elected a Member of the International Academy for the History of Science. 

Though these awards were certainly greatly appreciated by David, he probably achieved his greatest satisfaction in the help he gave to many colleagues, from innumerable countries, whose first language was other than English, in preparing their papers for publication. The amount of time he devoted to such tasks must have been enormous. He did this for papers given at innumerable conferences, and for issues of Earth Sciences History, which he edited between 2007 and 2013, and earlier for Annals of Science, Metascience (in the formation of which he played a seminal role) and numerous other journals. 

His last award was the Vallance Medal, funded in memory of David’s good friend (although Tom Vallance would probably have preferred to be remembered as a distinguished metamorphic petrologist). This was awarded in absentia at the 2014 Australian Earth Science Convention held at Newcastle, New South Wales, by the Earth Sciences History Group of the Geological Society of Australia, of which David was a member.  
David Oldroyd died of cancer in Sydney on 7 November 2014, after a long illness. 

David Branagan