Remembering Ed Bailey, premier paleontologist

On what would have been his father’s 100th birthday, Jon Bailey came down to the Naracoorte Caves where Edwin “Ed” Bailey has a plaque in his honour.

“Dad would always take us down to Naracoorte,” Jon said. “We grew up going through the caves.”

Ed Bailey only got into paleontology later in life – his initial occupation was as an engineer. 

He worked in Great Britain at a light company, before assisting in World War II by becoming a lieutenant weapons training instructor, and designing the bomb fuse in the 1943 Dam Busters raid.

After moving to South Australia in 1960 to assist with the Maralinga test site, Ed and his family began to explore the state through camping and carvanning.

It was around the 1970s when Ed started to become fascinated with geology and paleontology. He joined the Cave Exploration Group of SA, and it was in this group where he first discovered a significant fossil chamber in the Victoria Cave, Naracoorte.

Jon Bailey explained this his father had found an ossuary, 40m north of the main cave. An ossuary is a chamber which houses the bones of the dead.

Ed Bailey’s discovery, and subsequent discoveries, brought significant attention to the caves.

He spent hours reconstructing the skeletons of megafauna, and there is even an ancient kangaroo named in his honour, the Sthenurus Bailey.

Ed also pieced together the Thylacoleo Carnifex from the jumble of bones found in the caves. It took him 635 hours to varnishing, plastering, and replica moulding to create a model of the skeleton.

But Ed’s skeleton building was so skilful that his models were bought for thousands of dollars and displayed in Perth, Sydney, New York’s Museum of Natural History, and the British Museum in London.

Other scientific achievements were assisting Flinders University’s Biological Sciences laboratory; being a guest presenter at the Investigator Science Centre in Adelaide; appearing on Quantum when the program featured the caves; and even appearing on Japanese television through the channel NHK.

Ed Bailey’s significant contributions to our knowledge of the caves, through his painstaking work in excavating, modelling, and record-keeping, assisted in making the caves a World Heritage site.

In 2002, a year before he died, Ed Bailey was made the first official patron of the caves.

“Your willingness to share your experiences with visitors on guided tours made their cave tour a special experience,” the letter of patronage status read.

“So much fossil material has been prepared and curated by yourself, as well as sharing your knowledge with others to enrich their lives.”

According to Jon, even though the ossuaries are no longer accessible to preserve their findings, there is one significant pair of footprints in the ancient silt lining an ossuary floor.

“Dad discovered them with Robert Wells and Gavin Prideaux,” Jon said. “Back in those days there were more places where you could go in the caves, but they still didn’t want people to step on the silt.

“There was one person who decided to do it though – David Attenborough.”