One of the pleasures of a professional life is to work with colleagues who contribute so much to Quaternary geology, geomorphology, and sedimentology. Two such colleagues are James Maurice Bowler and James Malcolm Coleman. Both have probably never met. Yet in separate but related ways they have influenced my thinking and understanding of earth science.

I first met Jim Bowler (JB) in the middle of 1962 during a field trip I led to Port Stephens. This was during an ANZAAS conference. I had the opportunity of showing a group some of the field sites I had been working on since 1960 including the Pleistocene sief-like dunes at Tomago and a peculiar exposure in a recent excavation for the diversion channel feeding Grahamstown Swamp. This exposure was rich in gypsum crystals which fascinated Jim and his mentor Edwin Sherbon Hills who was also present that day. Peter Roy later interpreted the deposits as freshwater lake of late Tertiary age. It was nearly 10 years before I caught up with JB again.

Jim Coleman (JC) was a part-time graduate student at Louisiana State University when I went there in September 1962. Originally from around Monroe in southwest Louisiana, in 1962 he was employed by the Coastal Studies Institute (CSI) working on delta sedimentology in the Mississippi. Like JB, he was a few years older than me and quite experienced in field work. There was a team closely looking at signatures of different sedimentary environments in this delta complex. The scale was small and included West Bay, a sub-delta area. Here was a chance to learn how much one could extract from good quality cores and build a depositional history around sedimentary structures and other indicators. This work gave me a feel for what I had to do in my study of mangrove delta habitats in Tabasco, Mexico. In November 1962, he was a leader of a field trip with Jim Morgan and Woody Gagliano across coastal Louisiana into Texas. This was a revelation in planning and organising a field excursion where I served as one who erected posters at each stop. There was so much to learn.

JC did not get his PhD till 1966. He struggled with the language requirements of the degree as did most of us. Jim was too captured by his field and laboratory work to bother until finally pressure was put on him to complete his degree. In the process we enjoyed a seminar under Professor R.J. Russell. He divided the class into teams one led by JC the other by me. Now it was time to test each other while guiding our colleagues to provide the demanding Professor with information. Jim was exuberant and argumentative at times and this made for great exchanges.  In 1964, JC came to Australia with Gagliano and Gil Smith to look at a high tide delta, the Burdekin. They also visited the Klang in Malaysia. A seminar on their return had us all smiling as Jim in his usual style dramatized the floodtide driven sand waves moving inland on the channel of the Burdekin River. They were there in the dry season and did not witness monsoonal floods. But Australia was teaching him something that the Mississippi could not. His later study of the Brahmaputra, published in Sedimentary Geology in 1969 (3, 129-239), is a classic in understanding braided channel processes and sedimentation in a region of high seasonal discharge. This study reminds me of sedimentary characteristics seen in outcrops of the Triassic Hawkesbury Sandstone around Sydney.

After I returned to Australia in 1971, I was fortunate to join a CSI team led by Don Wright to the Ord-Cambridge Guld area in WA. This was a further extension of CSI research into deltas in different environments. JC met up with us during our time at Wyndham and immediately tested us with challenging questions. Several studies arose from this work including our joint paper in Journal of Geology in 1973 (81, 15-41) on channel processes. I was delighted to co-author some papers with JC.  He came out to Australia in 1986 for the International Sedimentology Congress. I had the pleasure of taking him on a trip down the South Coast spending time around Twofold Bay. By now he was a distinguished LSU Professor and a member of several US national committees. He later became Executive Vice-Chancellor of LSU.

Jim Bowler came late to academic studies. Raised in rural eastern Victoria on a potato farm, his story is well told in that excellent book by Billy Griffiths “Deep Time Dreaming, Uncovering Ancient Australia” (2018, Black Inc.). JB was a passionate man, full of ideas and always ready for a debate. For five years we worked together at ANU in the Department of Biogeography and Geomorphology. These were exciting times—no teaching responsibilities but as research fellows there was a commitment to field work that would provide insights into Australian Quaternary history.  New discoveries were being made all the time often in collaboration with colleagues on the floor below us in Prehistory. In this JB was a pioneer.

Before he came to Canberra, JB had completed his BSc and MSc at Melbourne.  During the 1960s he worked on a geological study of Port Phillip Bay. This is a very comprehensive analysis of sedimentary features and landforms of the bay involving diving and coring. In what turned out to be his typical thorough style he produced a comprehensive report in 1966 entitled “Port Phillip Survey 1957-1963---geology and geomorphology” (Memoir Natural Museum Victoria, 27, 19-67). I attach an extract from page 28 of that memoir on offshore bars that are a fascinating feature of the Bay.

JB commenced a PhD at ANU with encouragement of Joe Jennings after working on western Victorian lakes where he tried to interpret climate change signals from changing lake levels. Jennings advised him to look at Willandra Lakes and in 1967 he encountered those majestic lunettes on the shores of these ancient water bodies. Years of field study followed and as reported in the words of his daughter in Griffiths’s book “the breath and depth of isolated places resonated with him”. JB interpreted the region’s Quaternary history, especially at Lake Mungo, and in the process opened up the grand narrative of Australian prehistory with his discovery of human activity.

ANU’s School of Pacific Studies for the next decade became a hotbed of new discoveries, debate, and great excitement. Access to radiocarbon dating facilitated the development of chronologies that expanded our knowledge of Aboriginal occupance across Australia. JB was at the centre of all this getting his PhD in 1970 on lakes and sediments in south east Australia. He helped facilitate a broader discussion of Quaternary science. I was part of the group that established AQUA at this time and Jim and I co-authored a little note in Striae (1982, 16, 7-9) on “Chronostratigraphic subdivision of the Holocene in Australia”.

Jim is a person of great humanity. He felt deeply about what he had discovered as to its significance to Aboriginal peoples. Much time since then has been devoted to their spiritual and physical well-being. He said in 2014 that “In my pursuit of rational science, those lakeshore sands, originally solely of scientific interest, have been transformed into sacred grounds”. Billy Griffiths notes the magnitude of this insight weighs him down as it lifts him up (p.139). To be around in those heady days in the 70s was an incredible privilege. You knew you were in for a fight if you disagreed with “Comrade Jim” (several of us were “Comrades” during those Whitlam years). But he was a staunch defender of his work and those who helped him.

The two Jim’s have so much in common. Both inspired me in similar ways with their underlying commitment to field work. Both had that rare skill in the field to spot things that mattered and saw the significance of their findings. They also had the ability to communicate the big picture and demonstrate how observations matter. Coleman worked on a world stage of delta sedimentation relevant to geologists at older time scales; Bowler picked up some stone tools and human remains while undertaking geomorphic mapping and placed that information into the context of climate change and human history. In those 20 odd years during which I was associated with them, I found it possible to capture some of their insights as scientists but more importantly to appreciate how as colleagues they could foster deep learning.

Bruce Thom 

I thank Andy Short for a copy of text from Port Phillip Survey 1957-1963---geology and geomorphology

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2020. For correspondence about this blog post please email