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Lea, Arthur Mills (1868–1932)

by E. G. Matthews

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Arthur Mills Lea (1868-1932), by unknown photographer, c1910

Arthur Mills Lea (1868-1932), by unknown photographer, c1910

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6184

Arthur Mills Lea (1868-1932), entomologist, was born on 10 August 1868 at Surry Hills, Sydney, second son of Thomas Lea, a currier from Bristol, England, and his Sydney-born wife Cornelia, née Dumbrell. Leaving public school at 15 he joined a firm of chartered accountants. He had become interested in insects while a child and continued to study them in his own time. In 1891 he became assistant entomologist in the New South Wales Department of Agriculture and in 1895 he was appointed government entomologist in Western Australia. On 13 May 1896 he married Nellie Blackmore. When their son died soon after birth, the local Anglican pastor's refusal to bury the unbaptized infant left Arthur Lea embittered with the Church for the rest of his life.

At the first opportunity the Leas left Western Australia. In 1899 he was appointed government entomologist in Tasmania where he soon succeeded (his predecessor, having been dismissed under pressure from farmer groups because he failed) in controlling the codling moth, a fruit pest. Lea elucidated the life history of this moth, as well as that of another serious pest, the underground grass grub, with the help of local farmers and orchardists. His capacity to imbue others with his enthusiasm and to enlist their help was characteristic of Lea's entire career. His handbook on pests of orchards and farms and some eighty papers on pest insects and their control established his world-wide reputation in economic entomology.

Lea's first and most enduring passion was the study of beetles. By 1911, when he applied by invitation for the position of entomologist at the South Australian Museum, he could cite published descriptions of 1853 new species. Appointed on an annual salary of £300 he at last was able to indulge his love of beetles during both his working and leisure hours. He embarked on a series of collecting trips which took him to many different parts of Australia and offshore islands. The material thus acquired, added to that obtained earlier in his career and through his encouragement of other collectors, enabled Lea to bequeath to the South Australian Museum what is still the most representative and diverse collection of beetles in Australia.

In 1919, as a member of the South Australian Weevil Commission, Lea developed a method of protecting wheat accumulated during the war from insect pests: it saved some £1,500,000. He was consulting entomologist (1911-32) to the South Australian Department of Agriculture and lecturer in forest entomology (1912-24) at the University of Adelaide. In 1924 a twelve-month appointment with the government of Fiji to study ways of controlling the coconut moth, which was attacking copra crops, took him to Queensland, Java, Malaya and Borneo in search of a parasite. Lea wanted to take the live parasite (a fly) that he found eventually in Malaya, to Fiji by aeroplane but his wife, who had accompanied him, opposed this dangerous mode of transport, and the insects died on board ship. The same species of fly later was introduced to Fiji with great success, but Lea did not get the credit due.

On his return to Adelaide in 1925 he plunged with renewed energy into his revisionary work on beetles, particularly on the huge family of weevils which had commanded most of his attention, but his eyesight began to fail and he came to rely more and more on his assistant, Norman B. Tindale, to make drawings and check details. He published over 280 formal papers, as well as numerous articles in newspapers and magazines, and described 5432 new species of beetles. His private hobby was philately.

Lea was a large man with luxuriant hair and moustache. Frank, genial and generous he was described by those who knew him well as a delightful fellow in camp, whimsical and self-sacrificing. Known to have been hypertensive for many years, Lea died suddenly on 29 February 1932 in Adelaide and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. His wife and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Hale, ‘Obituary and bibliography of Arthur Mills Lea’, South Australian Museum, Records, 4 (1932), p 411
  • Australian Museum Magazine, 4 (1932), p 342
  • Victorian Naturalist, 49 (1932), p 15
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 Mar 1932, 14 Jan 1933
  • Herald (Adelaide), 1 Mar 1932
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2, 5 Apr 1932
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

E. G. Matthews, 'Lea, Arthur Mills (1868–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lea-arthur-mills-7130/text12303, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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