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Haswell, William Aitcheson (1854–1925)

by Patricia Morison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Aitcheson Haswell (1854-1925), biologist, was born on 5 August 1854 at Gayfield House, Edinburgh, one of a large family of James Haswell, banker, and his wife Margaret, née Cranston. He was educated at the Edinburgh Institution and the University of Edinburgh (M.A., 1877; B.Sc., 1878; D.Sc., 1887). He also studied science for some months at the University of Leipzig, Germany, in 1877. Broadly cultivated, neat and shy in demeanour, a meticulous prize-winning scholar, he was inspired by the teaching of T. H. Huxley and C. Wyville Thompson, who directed his aptitude for natural history into marine zoology.

In 1878, for health reasons, Haswell visited Australia. Welcomed as a kindred spirit in Sydney by (Sir) William Macleay, he began work in a small marine zoological laboratory at Watson's Bay on a long series of important researches on the collections from the Chevert expedition to New Guinea, and on the marine fauna of Port Jackson and the adjacent coast; in 1897 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London. Curator of the Queensland Museum during 1880, he returned to Sydney, and in 1881 joined H.M.S. Alert on a surveying cruise of the Great Barrier Reef, studying especially crustaceans. In 1882 he was appointed demonstrator in comparative anatomy and physiology and histology at the University of Sydney, and from 1884 lecturer in zoology and comparative anatomy and demonstrator in histology. In 1890 he became first Challis professor of biology (restyled zoology in 1915).

Haswell significantly helped to stimulate recognition for science at the university 'against the entrenched forces of Arts', and more widely in Australasia. He was a council-member from 1881 and president in 1892 and 1893 of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, an active member of the local Royal Society (which awarded him the (W.B.) Clarke medal in 1915), a trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney, in 1891-1923 and a contributor to meetings of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1914. Between 1916 and 1919 he advised the Commonwealth government on insect damage to wheat, fisheries and a proposed marine biological station in Sydney.

Although Haswell's most valuable work related to the Crustacea, Annelida and Bryozoa of the Australian seas, he is best remembered for A Text Book of Zoology (London, 1897), 'a monument of scholarship', written with Professor T. Jeffrey Parker of the University of Otago, New Zealand; it ran through four editions by 1928, was translated into Russian in 1908 and abridged as A Manual of Zoology in 1913. Parker died shortly before its first publication, but Haswell retained the joint authorship in honour of his friend. At Christchurch, New Zealand, on 28 August 1894 he married a former pupil of Parker, Josephine Gordon Rich of Toi Toi, New Zealand, who assisted him in his work.

Haswell died of heart disease on 24 January 1925 at his home at Point Piper, Sydney, and was buried with Presbyterian forms in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. His wife and only daughter Mary survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Moyal (ed), Scientists in Nineteenth Century Australia (Melb, 1975)
  • Linnean Society of London, Proceedings, 1924-25, p 74
  • Royal Society of London, Proceedings, 1925, p xii
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 1928, p 485, and for publications
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26, 27 Jan, 9 Feb 1925
  • J. T. Wilson papers (Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • CSIRO Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Patricia Morison, 'Haswell, William Aitcheson (1854–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/haswell-william-aitcheson-6597/text11357, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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