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Ralph Tate was born on 11 March 1840 at Alnwick, Northumberland, England, son of Thomas Turner Tate (1807-1888), teacher of mathematics and science, and his wife Frances, née Hunter. He was educated at Cheltenham College and the Royal School of Mines, London, where he was an exhibitioner in 1858. He taught at the London Polytechnic, at Bristol and in Belfast, where he founded the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club. He was appointed assistant curator to the museum of the Geological Society of London in 1864, having published work in geology, particularly palaeontology, and in botany. In 1867-68 he worked in central America and Venezuela largely on mining prospects; after returning to England he taught at mining schools in Bristol, Darlington and Redcar, and undertook a major investigation of the Yorkshire Lias. His work was recognized by the Geological Society in 1874 by the award of a moiety of the Murchison Fund.
When the University of Adelaide was founded in 1874 Tate was appointed to the Elder chair of natural science. His arrival in Adelaide in 1875 stimulated the small scientific community. By 1878 he had published a number of papers on local geology, and in 1880 he converted the comatose Adelaide Philosophical Society into the Royal Society of South Australia, becoming its first president. In 1877 he had founded the colony's first continuing scientific journal, which became the Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society of South Australia. In the same year he discovered at Hallett Cove impressive evidence of former glaciation. His earliest geological interest in his new homeland was in the sequences of Tertiary sediments in the coastal region south of Adelaide and in cliffs formed by the River Murray: this became the basis of his most notable work. He was also associated with the discovery and study of Cambrian rocks on Yorke Peninsula and of Mesozoic strata in the Great Artesian Basin.
The chair of natural science embraced botany and zoology as well as geology. Tate's publications on zoology as distinct from palaeontology consisted of about twenty papers, mainly on Mollusca. His contributions on botany, about forty, culminated in his Handbook of the Flora of Extratropical South Australia (1890) and were the foundations of the present knowledge of the plants of the colony.
He married twice. He died of heart disease at Buxton Street, North Adelaide, on 20 September 1901 and was buried in the North Road cemetery.Biographical SourceAdapted from The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976.
Ralph Tate - University - Question of the substitution of the subject Physiography for Physical Geography
Professor Ralph Tate - The University - Application to be reimbursed moneys expended as per enclosed accounts
Professor William Henry Bragg - The University - Work to be done for Professor Ralph Tate in the workshop
Herbert Basedow - Honorary Secretary - Tate Memorial Fund - The University - Stating that the Tate Memorial Tablet has been placed on the wall of the Museum
Herbert Basedow - Honorary Secretary - Tate Memorial Committee University - Resolutions and suggestions regarding Tate Memorial Medal for the Councils approval - Forwarding cheque for £60
Miss Ellen Ida Benham - Isaac Herbert Boas - James Drinkwater Iliffe - Geology and Botany lectures for Professor Ralph Tate