Basil Balme interview, 15 October 2014

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Basil Balme interview, 15 October 2014




Basil Balme was an undergraduate at UWA at the beginning of the 1940s, but like many he enlisted for military service around 1942 after second year and served in the Australian Navy, returning to finish his degree in 1946 and graduating in 1948. In 1947 he was awarded the Edward Sydney Simpson Prize as well as the Lady James Prize in Natural Science (both jointly with John Glover). He returned to teach at UWA around 1957, eventually becoming Acting Head of Department (for Professor Harris), and Head of Department in 1984, before his own retirement.


Balme, Basil


University of Western Australia Historical Society


Copyright holder University of Western Australia


MP3 files


Oral History

Oral History Item Type Metadata


Julia Wallis


Basil Balme


Claremont, W.A.


58 minutes, 56 seconds

Bit Rate/Frequency

128 kbs

Time Summary

Track 1
00:00 Introduction by Julia Wallis

Track 2
00:00 Grandfather from Bradford, Yorkshire, UK. Basil’s father worked at Collie and farmed at Meckering. Later, he bought a shop in Victoria Park and then at Mends Street, South Perth. Basil’s mother taught piano. Basil’s father was gassed during the Battle of Passchendaele in about 1917. He was a heavy smoker and died in his early forties (c 1935). Basil attended schools in Victoria Park, Como and Subiaco. Subsequently, he attended Perth Boy’s School. He did the Junior Certificate and passed 10 subjects and won a scholarship which gave him entry into Scotch College. Luckily he was good at sports and played in their football and cricket teams. They beat Aquinas College to win the Darlow Cup at the WACA in 1939. He became Head Boy at Scotch College but thinks it was because so many boys left due to WWII.
06:45 Basil wanted to do law but you had to have Leaving Latin. He did first year engineering at UWA but realised that it wasn’t for him. There was no medical school at this time. He didn’t want to get called up into the army so he joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1942 and became a radar officer. He was on the corvette HMAS Cowra doing convoy duty in the Pacific for about 2 years and then did more training before serving on the Bungaree.
11:15 After the war he went back to UWA and studied geology. Returned servicemen had their fees paid. He had a scholarship to St George’s College. At this time, Basil considered UWA to be a training school for professionals rather than a university. There was very little research being done apart from perhaps in the Department of Agriculture. The first Professor of Zoology who came to UWA in 1948, Harry Waring (1910-1980) , changed the attitude of UWA towards research.
15:30 Teaching in Geology was very good. Professor Rex Prider was a mineralogist. R W Fairbridge published a lot of work. Curt Teichert was a palaeontologist. He was not there when Basil did his Honours year. The system in those days was to do a three year degree course followed by a year of research. You were expected to find your own project. Basil was approached by Joe Lord, the Surveyor-General, to look at a new technique called palynology. It was the study of the fossil pollen and spore of fossil plants that had been distributed by the wind and incorporated in marine and non-marine sediments. They were very resistant to decay. This had originally developed for the coal industry in England but it was highly successful and could be employed in the oil industry as well. Basil established his reputation and made a lot of money for the Department. This method is used widely today in the Departments of Archaeology and Anthropology. Field trips to the Irwin River every year until Honours year to see fossils in strata. You could also do field work in your Honours year.
20:44 The spores and pollen study made it quite easy to get jobs. At one time Basil got a Fullbright Scholarship to Harvard and was paid on the staff for another year before getting a job at New York University for about 3 years. He also had a paid television programme in New York. Harvard had lots of Nobel prize winners and is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Basil was in the USA in 1963 when President John F Kennedy was shot in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. The contrast between Harvard and UWA at that time was huge. UWA is very different now and has a large research focus and an emphasis on seeking knowledge.
24:11 When Basil was a student at UWA, he played sport and drank beer. They had social functions such as a Friday social where he met young women. St George’s College was very comfortable. The Warden was Josh Reynolds. Basil was on its Council for a couple of years. There were formal dinners in the evening. The Warden would say a formal grace before dinner. Lectures started at 9am. Students wore gowns to the evening meals but not to lectures like the Law students.
27:19 There was a library in the Geology Department so Basil did not use the university library that much. St George’s College library was quite widely used. The Zoologists had their own library and so did Mathematics and Physics. The department was training the students to go and work in the gold industry. By the time Basil reached Honours level, the oil industry had just been established in WA and attitudes changed. Geology in America was very much about exploring for oil
32:25 Basil worked for the National Coal Board in Sheffield, England from about 1949 to 1952 after he left St George’s College. He got married in England. They looked at the composition of the coals. Australian coals are different and contain more water. After the Coal Board, Basil worked for the CSIRO in Sydney studying oil exploration for about 3 years.
37:39 He returned to Perth in about 1957 to teach in the Geology Department at UWA. He believes that he was approached by the university. Basil recalls that Professor Eric Underwood in the Agriculture Department had a substantial research reputation. Harry Waring added to this emphasis when he arrived at UWA in 1948. Basil was asked to teach basic geology to classes of agriculture and engineering students. One of his students gained a considerable reputation in the field of spores and pollen research. Rex Prider didn’t do a great deal of supervision as not many students were that interested in mineralogy. He didn’t feel it was a very exciting department. The syllabus had not developed very much but Basil developed his own subjects based on his research interests. Professor Clark was the original professor before Prider. Basil’s teaching methods were different and he spent time with individual students in their Honours years.
42:39 Basil took field trips but not for Honours students. The Department did not approve of this. They felt that field work was an essential aspect of Geology. Field Geology and field mapping has gone out of fashion now and has been supplemented by Geophysics and surveys. There are not many exposures of rocks around Perth so the nearest field trips would be Collie or Irwin River. Staff would stake the students in their own cars or they would hire buses. They had to bring their own food and tents.
46:50 When Basil returned to UWA in 1946 there were staff shortages. Most of the younger men had gone away to WWII leaving behind the “God” professors. When he went back to teach in the late 1950s the teaching method had not changed dramatically. Job opportunities for geologists were few and included working for the survey, CSIRO or university teaching. Returning from America he still found that there was still little emphasis on research.
51:28 The Festival of Perth would have been operating from UWA campus. UWA was always very active in drama. Basil appeared in several of their plays. He was on the Senate and was Chairman of the Scholarships Committee.
54:50 Basil could have ended up as a farmer but UWA introduced him to areas of great interest and provided him with job opportunities and income.



Balme, Basil, “Basil Balme interview, 15 October 2014,” UWA Historical Society: UWA Histories, accessed July 13, 2024,