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Dakin, William John (1883–1950)

by Ursula Bygott and K. J. Cable

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William John Dakin (1883-1950), zoologist, was born on 23 April 1883 at Toxteth Park, Liverpool, Lancashire, England, son of William Dakin, coal merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, née Grimshaw. Entering the University of Liverpool in 1901, he graduated B.Sc. with first-class honours in zoology in 1905 and M.Sc. in 1907. As an 1851 Exhibition scholar, Dakin spent 1907-08 at Christian-Albrechts-Universität, Kiel, Germany, with professors Brandt and Lohmann, partly at the biological station on Heligoland, where he furthered his already strong oceanographical interests. After a season in Italy at the British Association School for the Advancement of Science, at the Naples Zoological Station, where he declined a permanent appointment, Dakin in 1909 became assistant lecturer at Queen's University of Belfast. He returned to teach at Liverpool in 1910 under his old mentor Sir William Hardman, completing work on osmotic pressure and the blood of fishes for his D.Sc. (1911).

Dakin moved to a senior assistantship at University College, London, in 1912 but applied, almost at once, for the chair of biology in the new University of Western Australia. On the withdrawal of a more favoured candidate, Dakin, described by the electors as 'bright, keen and with a good manner', was appointed. Before taking up his post he married Catherine Mary Gladys Lewis on 15 January 1913 at the Welsh Calvinistic Chapel, West Kirby, Cheshire. His wife, who held a science degree and assisted his work, bore him a son Harvey.

Dakin entered on his Australian career zestfully. He introduced local material to his students and published for them The Elements of Animal Biology (1918). He set up a biology club, chaired the extension committee (1917) and argued about the payment of fees. To further his physiological studies, he twice visited the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago; to widen the zoological impact, he became president of the local Royal Society in 1913-15. Refused permission to enlist, he was seconded for public health service in Colombo and Perth. In a city where a university was a novelty, Dakin helped to gain acceptance for it.

On leave in England in 1920, Dakin sought and was offered the Derby chair of zoology, at Liverpool—it did not fulfil his high expectations. Within eighteen months, he applied for the Challis chair of zoology at the University of Sydney. Despite endorsement by British and local selection committees, Dakin lost out narrowly to a Sydney graduate, Launcelot Harrison whom he succeeded in 1929, having in the meantime published Elements of General Zoology (London, 1927), using methods of comparative physiology. He reached Sydney on 24 January 1929.

Dakin's long professoriate at Sydney was distinguished by enthusiasm, diversity and great activity. Despite the Depression and World War II, he enlarged and enlivened his department, some of whose members did not approve of his wide range of interests or his teaching methods. A stimulating and innovative undergraduate lecturer, he gave postgraduate students much latitude but exacted great effort from them. He took little part in university administration.

Marine biology in many forms engrossed Dakin. With A. N. Colefax of Sydney, he published a pioneer study, Plankton of the Australian Coastal Waters off New South Wales (1940) and investigated the life cycle of commercial prawns. He turned to history in his Whalemen Adventurers (1934). The fisheries laboratory of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research at Cronulla was partly his creation and he served on the C.S.I.R. advisory panel for many years before becoming a councillor in 1948. Dakin, a trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney, was a council-member and president of the Royal Zoological (1931) and the Linnean (1934-35) societies of New South Wales and received their fellowships. Intensely interested in science in schools, he constructed syllabuses in general biology and zoology for the State intermediate and leaving certificates. A daring new syllabus stressing a general approach to scientific education had been drawn up by 1950. Above all, Dakin took science into the market place. A few tentative radio talks developed into a long-term series, 'Science in the News', for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. His enormous knowledge, simply presented in his Liverpool accent, gave him a large audience and brought his university direct to many people who otherwise scarcely knew of its existence.

During World War II Dakin in 1941 became technical director of camouflage for the Ministry of Home Security and built up a research institute and museum in his department at the university. His publication, Art of Camouflage (1941), which drew heavily on his marine experience, summarized much of his work in this field.

Dakin received world wide recognition, not least for the large number of his students who achieved prominence in zoology. In addition to his books he published over sixty papers on scientific subjects. He retired at the end of 1948 and was made emeritus professor next April. That same year the Hobart meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science awarded him its Mueller medal. He was a keen photographer and yachtsman; these hobbies helped his marine work but were not simply a part of it. He tried his hand at painting and was a better musician, being a member of an academic string quartet, and a supporter of the A.B.C. symphony concerts. He was a member of the Australian Club, Sydney.

Despite a long illness, Dakin pressed on with a major book, Australian Seashores, for, as he wrote, 'for over thirty years the study of the Australian seashores and seas has been my life work'. He received a large amount of help from his two long-term assistants Isobel Bennett and Elizabeth Pope, who saw the volume through to posthumous publication in 1952. Dakin died of cancer at his Turramurra home on 2 April 1950 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife and son. His estate was valued for probate at £19,874.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 6 Apr, 8 June 1950
  • Australian Journal of Science, June 1950, p 208
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 76 (1951) p. iv
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Apr 1950
  • Bulletin, 12 Apr 1950
  • W. J. Dakin papers, and Senate and Professorial Board minutes (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

Ursula Bygott and K. J. Cable, 'Dakin, William John (1883–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dakin-william-john-5863/text9971, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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