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Blackall, William Edward (1876–1941)

by B. J. Grieve

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

William Edward Blackall (1876-1941), medical practitioner and botanist, was born on 8 July 1876 at Folkestone, Kent, England, son of Walter Blackall, photographer, and his wife Sarah Jane, née Gilbert. As a child he developed a keen interest in wildflowers. Educated at the High School, Oxford, he matriculated on 23 May 1896 as a non-collegiate student of the university and graduated B.A. in 1900 (M.A., 1904). He went on to study medicine (L.R.C.P., London, M.R.C.S., England, 1903; B.M., B.Ch., Oxford, 1904). He developed an interest in mental illness and when the post of medical officer to the Fremantle Asylum was offered him, he accepted, partly for professional reasons and partly from curiosity about Western Australian flora. On 24 May 1904 he married Ethel Gray Eldrid at Oxford and they sailed at once for Perth.

After six years work at the asylum, Blackall entered general practice at Cottesloe and became known as an outstandingly capable physician, surgeon and obstetrician. He was later surgeon to the orthopaedic ward of the Lady Lawley Cottage by the Sea and consultant to the Mosman Park school for deaf children. He served as a volunteer gunner in the Australian Field Artillery for two years, then joined the Australian Imperial Force as honorary captain on 28 June 1916. He embarked on 29 June 1917, served in France with the 1st Australian General Hospital and the 1st Australian Field Ambulance, was declared medically unfit in October 1918 and returned to Australia in December as medical officer of the troopship Nestor. Discharged on 15 February 1919, he remained on the Australian Army Medical Corps reserve as assistant director of hygiene for base headquarters of the 5th Military District until he retired as major in July 1936.

Blackall resumed practice in Cottesloe in 1919 and despite the demands of his professional work found time to take an increasing interest in the native flora. During the early 1920s he met another keen botanist, C. A. Gardner, who later became government botanist. The two men made collecting trips together and collaborated in identifying plants. In 1935 Blackall and his wife went to England where he spent some time at the Kew Herbarium and presented specimens to it. On his return, with two partners in his practice, he devoted more time to botany. Besides identifying wildflowers he developed his talent for drawing and painting them. In 1918, while on active service in France and resting behind the lines before the battle of Mount Kemmell, he had made a delightful watercolour study of a Primula elatior plant that he found beside him in a field.

Convinced of the need for a simple illustrated key to the flora of Western Australia, he began work in the 1930s. His wife collaborated, but by 1941 even she believed that it was becoming a tyranny of labour. Blackall knew, however, that he was gravely ill; before completing the task, he died of cancer on 7 October. His wife, a daughter and a son survived him. Gardner honoured him in 1942 by naming a new genus Blackallia after him; a new species of Verticordia (V. etheliana) was named after his wife. A later botanical accolade came in 1974 when R. Carolin created the new genus Nigromnia (a play on the name Blackall). The Blackall Prize in the University of Western Australia is awarded annually to the most promising student of botany.

His manuscript, presented to the University of Western Australia in 1948, was completed by B. J. Grieve and published in four parts as How to Know Western Australian Wildflowers. A Key to the Flora of the Temperate Regions (1954-75). A reviewer concluded that the work might well be one of the most important botanical manuscripts ever published in Australia. It is Blackall's monument.

Select Bibliography

  • Medical Journal of Australia, 14 July 1917, 14 Dec 1918
  • C. A. Gardner, ‘Contributiones florae Australiae occidentalis XI’, Royal Society of Western Australia, Journal, 27 (1940-41)
  • B. J. Grieve, ‘Botany in Western Australia: a survey of progress: 1900-1971’, Royal Society of Western Australia, Journal, 58 (1975)
  • West Australian (Perth), 8 Oct 1941.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. J. Grieve, 'Blackall, William Edward (1876–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blackall-william-edward-5255/text8855, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 April 2018.

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

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