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Awards & prizes

Dr Malcolm Gill

 

Nomination of Dr Malcolm Gill for the Gold Medal of the Ecological Society of Australia

 

Malcolm Gill is the father of contemporary fire ecology in Australia. This status can be justified in many ways but first and foremost is his seminal contribution of the fire regime concept. Malcolm originally articulated the fire regime concept in a widely cited review paper (Gill1975.). The concepts in the review were expanded and further explored in a number of subsequent articles but most notably in the book “Fire and The Australian Biota”(Gill, Groves and Noble 1981): the first synthesis of Australian fire ecology.

This body of work crystallized the notion that the ecological ramifications of fires need to be understood as recurrent disturbances, not solely as ‘events’. Thus the cumulative characteristics of fires play a role in determining the response and persistence of species. This concept was timely as it coincided with an era of intense re-evaluation of the nature of community dynamics in response to disturbance. It directly led to an invigoration and blossoming of the field of fire ecology, because it stimulated an awareness of the importance and explanatory power of the intricacies of life-history, species dynamics and common patterns of response among species in fire-prone ecosystems.  

After completion of a degree in agricultural science at the University of Melbourne in 1962 Malcolm commenced post-graduate studies in forest ecology in the Botany Department of the same institution. This led to an MSc dealing with soil and vegetation patterns in the forests near Kinglake Victoria, followed by a PhD under the supervision of the late Professor David Ashton, which was completed in 1967. This project addressed the problem of co-existence of eucalypt taxa in the forests of the Victorian central highlands, including the remarkable Mountain Ash (E. regnans) stands of this region. Inexorably, this work involved scrutiny of the role of fire as a key explanatory factor, in conjunction with soils and topography. Elegant experimental work on the varied insulating properties of the bark of co-habiting eucalypt species was a highlight of this project (Gill and Ashton 1968). Notably, however, Malcolm’s diverse interests are hinted at in his first paper co-authored with David Ashton, which dealt with the ecology of feldmark on Macquarie Island (Ashton and Gill 1965).

In 1966, Malcolm and his new wife Beverley departed for the USA for post-doctoral studies in forest ecology. This involved work and residence for 2 years at the Harvard Forest - the famous experimental forest of Harvard University. After completion of this appointment (and successfully avoiding the draft for the Vietnam war), Malcolm moved to Florida where he commenced studies on tropical tree morphology and growth, specialising in mangroves, at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden (e.g. Gill and Tomlinson 1971).

Malcolm and his family returned to Australia in 1971 to commence an appointment with CSIRO Plant Industry in Canberra. This appointment led to a career dedicated to understanding the role of fire in Australian ecosystems. Malcolm also established wide-ranging research collaborations in North America, Africa and Europe, where his work remains influential. Retirement in 2000 did little to diminish this career, which remains vigorous as he enters his eight decade.

Malcolm has conducted an extraordinarily varied research program that not only covers most Australian ecosystems, but many facets of fire science (e.g. fire behaviour, fire weather, climate change and fire management) and an extensive range of national and international collaborations, resulting in over 250 publications including 6 books. A hallmark of Malcolm’s career has not only been his service to ecological science but his dedication to the development of systems for fire management based on scientific principles. Malcolm has worked with managers of all stripes in most Australian jurisdictions, earning deep respect and many enduring friendships along the way.

In the last decade his wisdom and expertise has been called upon often, most notably in his appointment to the Inquiry into the 2003 Victorian Bushfires (Esplin et al. 2003) and his service to 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission as part of the expert panel on land management. He also served in this period as Chairman of the ACT Bushfires Council. The fires of January 2003 in Canberra personally affected Malcolm, as his residence in Chapman was on the “front-line”. In typical fashion, Malcolm not only assisted his neighbours during the crisis but collected invaluable data. Subsequently, he has shared the intense experience of personal survival and recovery to great effect in teaching and research, with the intent of improving knowledge about how human communities can co-exist more effectively with fire.

Malcolm’s service has been recognized with two important awards: in 1998 he was awarded the Unsung Hero of Australian Science award (Australian Science Communicators) and in 1999 the Order of Australia Medal for research on bush fires and the environment. The Gold Medal of the Ecological Society of Australia is a fitting complement to these previous awards and a well-deserved recognition of his immense contribution to our understanding of Australian ecosystems, and to the development of systems for their wise management.   

References.

 Ashton, D.H. and Gill, A.M. (1965). Pattern and process in a Macquarie Island feldmark.
Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria 79, 235-245.
Gill, A.M. and Ashton, D.H. (1968). Role of bark type in relative tolerance to fire of three central Victorian eucalypts. Australian Journal of Botany. l6, 49l-498.
Gill, A.M. and Tomlinson, P.B. (1971). Studies on the growth of red mangrove (Rhizophora mangle L.)  3. Phenology of the shoot. Biotropica 3, l09-24.
Gill, A.M. (1975). Fire and the Australian flora: a review. Australian Forestry 38, 4-25.
Gill, A.M., Groves, R.H. and Noble, I.R. (eds) (1981). Fire and the Australian Biota.  582 pp.  Australian Academy of Science, Canberra.
Esplin, B., Gill, A.M. and Enright, N. (2003). Report of the Inquiry into the 2002-2003
Victorian Bushfires. State Government of Victoria, Melbourne. 370p.