Brisbane physicist and historian leaves legacy in books

JOHN Gladstone Steele was a physicist and antiquarian (his word!) who worked for many years in the physics department at the University of Queensland.

John worked across two disciplines, physics and history.

That was unusual even thirty years ago. In our more specialist age it is practically unheard of.

John Steele's most significant book was Aboriginal Pathways in Southeast Queensland and the Richmond River (1984).

In his younger days, John was an enthusiastic bushwalker, and this book was based on an earlier gestetnered and stapled pamphlet he produced for the University of Queensland Bushwalking Society.

He wrote about Aboriginal pathways in the first instance so that his group of bushwalkers could follow them, but in doing so, he became increasingly curious about the people who had made them.

I once asked him where he got his information - and he said he just asked the local Aboriginal people he met while out walking. In the 1970s and 1980s, very few people did.

About the same time he published Aboriginal legends of Stradbroke Island (1984).

Bushwalking gave John a sensibility to the Australian landscape that many of us lack. In Conrad Martens in Queensland: the frontier travels of a colonial artist (1978), John looked at the sketchbooks and paintings of Conrad Martens, who travelled to the Moreton Bay settlement (not yet Queensland) during 1851 and 1852, to drum up painting commissions amongst the squatters of the Darling Downs.

John had the eye to identify the locations of many of Martens' sketches, which now represent an important visual record of Aboriginal occupation.

Because of John's identification of the location of an Aboriginal camp in one of Martens' drawings, for instance, the botanist Rod Fensham was able to show that this place marked the northern limit of the yam daisy, a native plant with a tuberous root that was an important food source for the Aborigines - and soon to be wiped out by hungry sheep.

John's work dates from before Mabo, before Native Title, before current sensitivities about the European occupation of Australia. His books are resources for later researchers, rather than historical works in their own right.

Dr Steele is also the author of The Explorers of the Moreton Bay District 1770-1830 (UQP, 1972), Brisbane Town in Convict Days 1824-1842 (UQP, 1975), Conrad Martens in Queensland (UQP, 1978) and The Brisbane River, as well as many articles in historical, scientific and religious journals

For the full article by Marion Diamond, go to her blog site Historians are Past Caring:

https://learnearnandreturn.wordpress.com/2016/01/26/john-gladstone-steele-1935-2016


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