Vale Jenny Birch

Jenny Birch was a geologist, widely known and respected amongst Brisbane’s geoscience community.

Jenny Birch passed away Monday the 11th of June 2018. She lived life earnestly, generously and intelligently. She is survived by three children, eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren. She was a gregarious person who had a wide circle of friends of quite different types and across a range of ages and contributed to their lives.

Jenny was born in Tenterfield in northern NSW but grew up on a sheep station near Stanthorpe in southern Queensland. She has had a deep love of both rural life and wild places throughout her life. She had two brothers both around ten years older than her who were away at boarding school for significant periods. The nearest neighbour with children was some miles away. She loved farm life and tended to prefer the outdoor life, working with her father on the property, and was quite happy in a “man’s world”. She remained a woman who could happily mix and work with men throughout her life.

In the early 1950s, Jenny got a job working in a semi-technical role in Salisbury, South Australia, where she met and married Ray Birch. Jenny began a degree at the University of Queensland but lost interest and left to find a job, in her fashion, on the other side of Australia. Ray was working on the technical aspects of tracking rockets launched from Woomera. Jenny was part of a team of women who didthe masses of calculations required to determine the trajectories of the rockets.   She returned to university in Adelaide to do a part-time degree in geology. At this time, geology was definitely a man’s game. If I recall correctly, there was only one other woman doing the course. This didn’t daunt her. She had done a bit of geology in her unfinished degree in Queensland and the subject melded with her interest in nature and the physical world around her. Geology became her occupation and a major life interest.

After graduation she worked for Metals Exploration and later CRA as a geologist. While most women took up “office geologist” jobs – reviewing data and assembling reports – she always wanted to get out in the field, to be out of town, and do real geology. Eventually, she began her own business, Jenny Birch Geological Services, so she could spend time out of the office environment.

Jenny grew sick of Melbourne winters and wanted to move north to her native Queensland. She found a house at Wellington Point in the southern outskirts of Brisbane from where she continued to run her business, now in a form more to her liking. She combined some office work with jobs where she would set up camps in the bush and run exploration efforts. This involved her owning and maintaining a four wheel drive truck and sufficient gear to camp in the bush maybe a hundred kilometres from the nearest shop for a month or two at a time, plus employing and managing a couple of geological assistants and sometimes a team of drillers. These are the sort of guys who don’t mind the rough life and probably weren’t used to being told what to do by a woman. Jenny earned their respect, and gained their friendship. Her professional services were in demand and she was well regarded in the industry.

Jenny was affected by Alzheimer’s disease for some years, with progressive decline in memory and mental faculties. She had actually self-diagnosed the condition and was clear that there was a problem despite initially being told otherwise by her doctor and a psychologist. When the condition was confirmed she handled it with the same level-headed approach she took to her life in general. She acknowledged it, researched it, and planned her future with the disease. She remained living alone for several years at her home in Wellington Point, but eventually moved to Melbourne to live near her family. A couple of years ago she was moved into care. She suffered continuing mental deterioration with some severe periodic mental symptoms but at other times she was lucid and cheerful.

Jenny was always been a person who believed in a natural right of self-determination, both for herself and for everyone else. Her last enduring memories were of growing up in the bush in Queensland and when she talked of those long gone times as if they were present, she smiled.

Jenny donated her body to Melbourne University in keeping with the generosity she showed in life and her belief in our ability to create a better world through our actions.

Extracted from The Queensland Geologist, Geological Society of Australia, 27 July 2018