MA (Liverpool), PhD, DLitt (Monash). FBA, 2002
(Deceased), 2022-07-07
Human geography

Professor Joe Powell was Emeritus Professor of Historical Geography at Monash University. Professor Powell specialised in geographical and historical studies of resource appraisal, conservation and environmental management in the New World, particularly Australia. His recent research included:

  • water management in Australia from 1788
  • historiography of Geography in Australia
  • resource appraisal and environmental management in the British Empire/Commonwealth, 19C and early 20C
  • comparative geographies of environmental change, 19C and 20C.


Written by Peter J. Rimmer

Joseph (Joe) Powell came to enjoy celebratory status as a distinguished historical geographer. In 1964 he was recruited from England to the recently established Monash University by the late Professor Basil Johnson to join a team of geographers, with a strong emphasis upon their teaching ability, to initiate the subject. While members of this team diffused over time to other universities, Joe remained at Monash moving from senior teaching fellow through the ranks of lecturer, senior lecturer and reader to a personal chair as Professor of Historical Geography before becoming an Emeritus Professor in 1999. By the end of this academic journey Joe had become one of the jewels in the Monash crown not only as a gifted teacher but also as a renowned researcher, supervisor and writer — the first staff member to become a corresponding member of the British Academy.

All of this is remarkable, given that Joe was born into a tightly knit, working-class family in Bootle, which at the time jockeyed with Salford as the lowest socio-economic ranked place, not only in Lancashire, but also in the rest of Britain. His early streetwise life in Liverpool’s docklands, which imbued him with his quicksilver wit and inexhaustible fund of ditties, is well documented in his memoir Catching Tides: An Immigrant’s Recollections (Powell, 2016). With five siblings he felt compelled to leave secondary school early and take a job to assist his family. Fortunately, workmates in the Electrical Trades Union persuaded him to resume schooling, which eventually led him to study Geography at Liverpool University. After graduation he took up a position as an assistant lecturer at St Mary’s College, Twickenham, Middlesex, before he applied for a senior teaching fellowship at Monash University. This was to be a short stint in Australia so that he could return to England and closely follow the fortunes of his beloved Everton F.C.

In 1965 Joe was still advising newcomers at the airport that they would not necessarily enjoy academic life in Australia and, like him, would return home soon. This advice changed radically once he met and married an Australian, Suzanne Geehman, and started a family. Not only was he here to stay in his adopted country but he was primed to explore its neglected historical geography in greater depth. Initially, this was encapsulated in The Public Lands of Australia Felix: Settlement and Land Appraisal in Victoria 1834-91 with Special Reference to the Western Plains (Melbourne and New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), which drew upon his perceptive doctoral thesis into resource assessment, environmental attitudes, environmental management, and the role of government.

Some sixteen books and monographs, 111 major articles and chapters, 55 major and 72 shorter articles, notes, and commentaries, including many contributions to Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies, more than 150 reviews and a Doctor of Letters by examination followed. This prodigious output displays an abiding interest in the connection between Australia’s Jekyll and Hyde character of vacillating between drought and flood. Given water is the country’s liquid gold, he produced a series of investigations into environmental management in the Murray-Darling Basin and the historical role of water commissioners in Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. Also, he pinpointed the role of individuals, notably Professor Griffith Taylor, in gauging the country’s carrying capacity for accommodating additional population. 

This personal experience and literary output provided the springboard for him to explore people and places across the ‘New World’ — a grand project embracing field and archival work into society, nature and settlement across North America and Britain’s former imperial domains, particularly in relation to the development of modern geographical thought. In turn, these studies gave rise to explorations of images and image-makers in the process of pioneer settlement in Australia, which extended to encompass the country’s human landscape modification, national parks, regional planning, and water and forestry management and mismanagement. Again, he sought to evaluate Australia’s administrative, scientific, and technical experience against international yardsticks to gauge the degree of derivation or innovation.

With such a wide repertoire of publications and rich accumulation of knowledge Joe was able to offer a range of major courses on historical geography and social, regional, and environmental history to students at Monash, both on his own and in conjunction with colleagues. These courses were legendary in their breadth and depth. They attracted an array of higher degree students, who enjoyed and benefitted from his meticulous supervision. His precision with the repositioning of words in sentences was evident in his editorship of Australian Geographical Studies (1978-81) and his advisory role on an array of editorial boards, including a lengthy spell with the Journal of Historical Geography (1981-2009).

Apart from his involvement in academic administration at Monash University, he was also on the board of the Institute of Australian Geographers, including being its President (1984-85). Not surprisingly, Joe’s contribution was recognised in a series of awards. Besides being a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (1985), he was conferred the Royal Society of Victoria’s Research Medal (1988), the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland’s J. P. Thomson Medal (1998), the Geographical Society of New South Wales and Geography Teachers Association’s Macdonald Holmes Medal (1999), the Monash 50th Anniversary Research Award (2008) and the Institute of Australian Geographers’ Griffith Taylor Medal (2008).

Such a remarkable career led to him using his influence to challenge the corporatisation of universities during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and its undoubted impact upon academic careers. This erosion of his much valued vocation as a teacher prompted early retirement, which provided an opportunity to take up prestigious visiting professorships at the University of Cambridge, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Kyoto University. While his later years were dogged by ill health, he was wonderfully supported by his wife Suzie, daughter Melita and husband Will, and son Stephen and wife Celeste. Above all, he loved inculcating his five grandchildren with his wisdom fashioned firstly in Bootle and augmented from his life in Australia.

  • J.M. Powell (2004) Geographers. Biobibliographical Studies vol 23. London/New York: Continuum.
  • J.M. Powell (2003) Nikolai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay 1846-1888, In Geographers. Biobibliographical Studies vol. 22. P.H. Armstrong and G.J. Martin (eds.). New York/London: Continuum.
  • J.M. Powell (2002) Environment and institutions; three episodes in Australian water management, 1880-2000, Journal of Historical Geography, vol 28, No.1, pp.100-14.
  • J.M. Powell (2001) Afterword, In Place, Culture and Identity. I.S. Black and R.A. Butlin (eds.). Saint-Nicolas, Quebec: Les Presses de l'Universite Laval.
  • J.M. Powell (2001) 'Signposts to tracks'?: Hancock and environmental history, In Keith Hancock. The legacies of an historian. D.A. Low (eds.). Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
  • J.M. Powell (2000) Revisiting the Australian experience: transmillennial conjurings, Geographical Review, 90:1-17.
  • J.M. Powell (2000) Modern Historical Geographies. London: Routledge.
  • J.M. Powell (2000) Snakes and cannons:water management and the geographical imagination in Australia, In Environmental History and Policy. Still Settling Australia. S.Dovers (eds.). Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
  • J.M Powell (2000) Harvest of 'entwining complication': annotations on American historical geography, Australian Geographer, 31:93-403.
  • J.M. Powell (1999) Environment, culture and modern historical geography: recent Anglophone contributions, Jimbun-Chiri, 51:45-61.
  • J.M. Powell (1998) The quest for the citizen self, Progress in Human Geography, 22:317-19.