This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986
John Albert Leach (1870-1929), teacher and naturalist, was born on 19 March 1870 at Ballarat West, Victoria, son of William Leach, English-born coachsmith, and his wife Bedelia, née Honan, from Ireland. After matriculation from Creswick Grammar School, where he was dux, Leach worked as an unpaid student teacher at Dana Street State School, Ballarat, before gaining his trained teacher's certificate at the Melbourne Training College in 1890. He began a lifetime of professional employment with the Education Department of Victoria by teaching briefly at Mount Prospect and Footscray State schools and serving as head-teacher at Goyura (Rosebery) in the Mallee.
In 1892, before his marriage to Emily Hannah Lamert Gillman on 19 October at Christchurch, Ballarat, he received a longer-lasting appointment to Bengworden (Bairnsdale). He studied science at the Bairnsdale School of Mines, deepened his interest in natural history and pursued his hobbies of debating, cricket, tennis and horse-riding. He first became involved in adult education when in 1898 he was transferred to Moormung (Rosehill) State School where he conducted evening classes in physics. He went on to lecture to the Workers' Educational Association and was for twenty-five years a member of the University Extension Board, acting as secretary for seven years.
In 1901 Leach returned to Melbourne to study part time for his B.Sc. He graduated in 1904 with exhibitions in biology and geology and next year won a scholarship in biology. His great enthusiasm was the study of Nature; he gained his M.Sc. in 1906 and his D.Sc. in 1912 with a two-part thesis on the myology of Strepera and a revision of the lampreys of Victoria.
From 1904 Leach, as the Education Department's visiting teacher of nature study, was an inspiration to other teachers. His subject was soon accepted into the school curriculum and in February 1905 he became teacher of nature study and geography at the Melbourne Continuation (High) School and, in March, lecturer in nature study and botany at the Training College. He was appointed organizing inspector of nature study in 1907 and in 1911 and 1912 published a complete scheme for the teaching of the subject in the Education Gazette and Teachers' Aid. Leach led many field excursions and, although these were planned for small groups, attendance swelled and the trips soon became regular features of school life. In October 1909 Leach also helped to found the Gould League of Bird Lovers; its membership of 25,000 in its first year was a tribute to his organizing ability. He was made a senior inspector of schools in 1920, rising to assistant chief inspector in 1924.
Leach contributed monthly articles to the Education Gazette on natural history subjects from 1905 until 1919. With others he produced a series of six geography textbooks for elementary schools and a more advanced book for teachers. In 1908, assisted by Herbert Wilson, he published 'Nature-study: a descriptive list of the birds native to Victoria, Australia' as a supplement to the December issue of the Education Gazette. This was the forerunner of An Australian Bird Book (Melbourne, 1911) which ran to nine editions. His other major publication was Australian Nature Studies (Melbourne, 1922). He had two books in preparation when he died, one a collection of his weekly radio talks on natural history which he had broadcast over 3LO from the mid-1920s.
Leach was a member of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria and the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union. He was president of the R.A.O.U. in 1922-24 and a painstaking editor of the Emu in 1914-24. He was also convener of their checklist committee, a demanding position as nomenclature decisions for the revised edition of the Official Checklist of the Birds of Australia (1926) called for wise and temperate adjudication. Leach was also a colonial member of the British Ornithologists' Union and a corresponding fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union.
Of medium height and solidly built, Leach was endowed with a sober temperament but was nevertheless capable of enjoying a joke, frequently at his own expense. He died of pericarditis and pleurisy on 3 October 1929 at Richmond and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; he was survived by his wife, son and one of his two daughters. In 1930 members of his nature-study classes formed the Leach Memorial Club which met monthly for many years, participating in botanical, historical and geological excursions.
Tess Kloot, 'Leach, John Albert (1870–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/leach-john-albert-7131/text12305, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 April 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986