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Black, John McConnell (1855–1951)

by Enid Robertson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John McConnell Black (1855-1951), by unknown photographer

John McConnell Black (1855-1951), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6074

John McConnell Black (1855-1951), botanist, was born on 28 April 1855 at Wigtown, Scotland, third of four children of George Couper Black, procurator fiscal and banker, and his wife, Ellen, née Barham. He was educated at Wigtown Grammar School, the Edinburgh Academy, the College School, Taunton, training ground of many natural scientists, and the commercial Handels-Lehranstalt, Dresden, Germany. He worked in the British Linen Co. Bank in Edinburgh and the Oriental Bank, London, before migrating in 1877 to South Australia with his widowed mother, sister and brother. Another sister Helen, a brilliant scholar, remained in England, married Richard D'Oyly Carte, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, and successfully managed the opera company's affairs.

Black was unable to find work in a bank in Adelaide and in 1878 tried wheat-farming in salt-bush country at Baroota, where his interest in arid-zone flora and Aboriginal languages was aroused. The farming was uneconomic and in 1883 he returned to the city where he joined the staff of the South Australia Register. He later became a senior reporter and respected editorialist on the Advertiser, also working as a Hansard reporter on a sessional basis until he was 74. He was a capable linguist and frequently used Arabic, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish (as well as shorthand) in his notebooks and diaries. He published three papers in 1915-20 on Australian Aboriginal vocabularies, recording them in The International Phonetic Alphabet.

A legacy received on his mother's death enabled Black to retire from journalism in 1903 and to tour South America and Europe. On his return he concentrated on botany. Impressed that the alien weeds, grasses and garden escapes common near Australian towns had rarely been recorded, in 1909 he published The Naturalised Flora of South Australia, well illustrated with his own line-drawings. In 1914 he was bequeathed a further legacy by his sister Helen and began working on indigenous flora. Although self-trained, he was clearly the best systematic botanist in the State for almost fifty years. The Flora of South Australia was published in four parts in 1922-29, admirably illustrated with Black's habit and dissection drawings and including 2430 species, both indigenous and naturalized. It was indispensable both to local professional and lay botanists and to those concerned with the vegetation of the arid regions of contiguous States. In 1930, as secretary to the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science's committee on botanical nomenclature, Black actively participated in the International Botanical Congress at Cambridge, England.

The need for a revised edition of his book became acute in 1939: at 84 he undertook this exacting task. While slower in pace he was still efficient and worked steadily for twelve years, publishing part 1 in 1943 and part 2 in 1948; part 3 was nearing completion at his death.

Black's concept of species has proved sound, his approach to nomenclatural problems cautious and responsible. He was keenly observant and after a critical appraisal did not hesitate to make decisions in taxonomically difficult genera such as Eucalyptus, Acacia and Stipa. He was a gifted amateur with strong intellectual discipline; a modest man and a meticulous worker, he was patient with young inquirers seeking his opinion on difficult specimens. He worked largely with his own herbarium (bequeathed to the University of Adelaide), the specimens in which, though often meagre in size, were richly annotated with commentaries, descriptions and sketches; surprisingly few of South Australian species were not represented in it.

Black received many distinctions: honorary lecturer in systematic botany at the University of Adelaide (1927); associate honoris causa of the Linnean Society, London (1930); the Sir Joseph Verco Medal of the Royal Society of South Australia (1903); the Mueller Memorial Medal from A.N.Z.A.A.S. (1932); M.B.E. (1942); the Natural History Medallion from the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria (1944); and the (W. B.) Clarke Memorial Medal from the Royal Society of New South Wales (1946).

At Wellington on 11 September 1879 Black had married Alice Denford, who shared his interest in cycling and botany; they had a daughter and three sons. He died at his home, 82 Brougham Place, North Adelaide, on 2 December 1951, and was buried in Magill cemetery. A sketch-portrait by his eldest granddaughter Shirley Clissold was used on the dust-jacket of Memoirs of John McConnell Black (Adelaide, 1971) and is held by her.

Select Bibliography

  • J. B. Cleland and C. M. Eardley, ‘Preface’, J. M. Black, Flora of South Australia, part 3, (Adel, 1952)
  • E. C. Black et al (eds), Memoirs of John McConnell Black (Adel, 1971)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1888, 2 (28)
  • ANZAAS, Report of Meeting, 21 (1932)
  • Australasian Herbarium News, 1952, no 10
  • Victorian Naturalist, 68 (1951-52)
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 76 (1953), and for publications
  • Taxon 1 (1952)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Enid Robertson, 'Black, John McConnell (1855–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/black-john-mcconnell-5251/text8847, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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