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Story: Allan, Robin Sutcliffe

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Allan, Robin Sutcliffe


Geologist, university professor

This biography, written by J. D. Campbell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Robin Sutcliffe Allan was born at Dunedin on 7 September 1900. His father, Joseph Allan, was a farmer at East Taieri, and later agricultural editor of the Otago Witness. His mother, Emily Salmond, Joseph’s second wife, was the daughter of William Salmond, foundation professor at the Presbyterian Theological College and, from 1886, professor of mental and moral philosophy at the University of Otago.

Robin Allan attended Otago Boys’ High School from 1916 to 1919, achieving success in athletics and a place in the rugby First XV in 1918 and 1919. He remembered his days at the school with affection and always followed its fortunes in rugby. In 1920 he entered the University of Otago, studying geology under Professor W. N. Benson. He completed a BSc in 1922 and had field experience in 1922–23 with the Geological Survey Branch of the Mines Department. In 1924 he completed an MSc with first-class honours and gained the von Haast Prize. Before taking up an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship to Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, in 1926, he was geologist to the Otago Museum Chatham Island expedition. His first publications, including geological maps, were on the lower Waihao basin (for his master’s thesis) and the Chatham Islands.

In England Allan worked on collections of fossils from Reefton, New Zealand, under the supervision of Gertrude Elles, an authority on Lower Palaeozoic invertebrate life and a pioneer of evolutionary palaeontology. On 30 July 1927, in Gloucester, he married Muriel Constance Gifford, a science lecturer, who had graduated BSc in home science at the University of Otago in 1925. Allan’s scholarship was extended for a third year and he was awarded a PhD in 1929. Seeking a sound basis for assessing the age of the Reefton fossils, he studied the geological succession in Belgium, making a major contribution to the vexed question of the boundary between the Silurian and Devonian rock systems.

Back in New Zealand in 1930 with a National Research Scholarship, Allan was based at Otago University’s geology department, where he prepared his PhD and other work for publication. Research on Tertiary brachiopod fossils from the Chatham Islands, which his cousin J. A. Thomson, who died in 1928, had been expected to describe, led to an abiding interest in these fossils. Muriel Allan’s drawings of the fossils were used in some papers.

Robin’s appointment in 1931 as lecturer in geology and physical geography at Canterbury College gave him easy access to South Island fossil localities. In 1936–37 he was acting curator of the Canterbury Museum; he also sat on the museum’s board (1948–66) and was chairman (1954–59). Active in the Canterbury branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand, he was elected a fellow in 1940, and was president of the society from 1958 to 1960. He was awarded a DSc in 1943. In 1945 he was offered the geology chair at Canterbury, which he retained for 20 years.

Muriel Allan died in May 1948, leaving a six-year-old son. On 27 January the following year, in Christchurch, Robin married Annie Davidson Turner (née Reid). Annie (known as Nan) and her daughter moved to his house, Rise Cottage, on the Cashmere Hills. Robin was part of an active group of alpine plant enthusiasts and at about this time the garden was developed to allow for an extended scree.

Allan served on the Canterbury College council and on the academic board and Senate of the University of New Zealand. In 1949 he was an organiser of the Seventh Pacific Science Congress in Auckland. He also sat on the Cashmere High School board from 1957 to 1960. Always a reformer, he was an effective advocate for autonomy of the confederate institutions of the University of New Zealand: this was done in part through his editorials in the university teachers’ newsletter. The vision of a planned campus at Ilam led him into public debate against an influential faction that favoured retention of the central city site. Allan moved his department to the new site in November 1965 and was joined there by the Christchurch office of the Geological Survey.

It was, however, as an inspiring lecturer and leader in research that Robin Allan made his greatest impact. He was fully conversant with his subject, regarding it as much more than a compendium of facts, and had little time for codes and detailed curricula. He had a special interest in scientific biography and in the act of scientific discovery, which he considered comparable to artistic creativity: research was for him ‘the most important spiritual movement of our time’. These views were shared by Karl Popper, Allan’s colleague at the university between 1937 and 1945, with whom he became good friends. Popper had recently finished his monumental Logic of scientific discovery , and had an important influence on Allan’s thinking, although there was throughout Allan’s writings a concern for sound scientific philosophy.

Robin Allan retired at the end of 1965 and died in Christchurch on 5 July 1966. He was survived by his wife and the son of his first marriage.

How to cite this page:

J. D. Campbell. 'Allan, Robin Sutcliffe', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5a7/allan-robin-sutcliffe (accessed 13 April 2024)