Dunn was a geologist born England who migrated to New South Wales with his parents in 1849. At first they lived near Goulburn, but in 1856 moved to Beechworth, Victoria. Dunn was educated privately and at Beechworth Church of England Grammar School. From boyhood he was an ardent collector of minerals and rocks. In 1860 he joined the staff of the local Lands Survey Office, and four years later transferred to the Geological Survey of the Mines Department where he trained under A. R. C. Selwyn and G. H. F. Ulrich. In 1869 he qualified as a mining surveyor.
In 1871 Dunn left Australia for South Africa, where he was appointed government geologist for Cape Colony. His pioneer geological work there included a part in the discovery of diamonds and the opening of the Kimberley diamond mines, and investigations of the goldfields of Transvaal and the coal deposits of Cape Colony.
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