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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lyell, George (1866–1951)

by A. Neboiss

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

George Lyell (1866-1951), naturalist, was born on 25 July 1866 at Ararat, Victoria, son of George Lyell, printer from Scotland, and his English-born wife Jane, née Avery. He was educated at Stawell State School. About 1883 the family moved to South Melbourne and for seven years Lyell worked at Kew for J. Bartram & Son, butter, cheese and bacon factors, progressing from junior clerk to head of the dairy machinery branch. In 1890 he accepted a partnership in the Gisborne firm of E. Cherry & Sons, manufacturers of butter-factory and dairy appliances and sole suppliers in Victoria of entomological equipment. On 21 November 1893 at Gisborne, which was to be his home for life, he married a 45-year-old widow Fanny Ould, née Freeman.

In 1888 Lyell's capture of a Caper White butterfly at Albert Park had turned his attention seriously to insect collecting and prompted him to join the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria where he came under the influence of pioneers of Australian natural history—Frank Spry, (Sir) Baldwin Spencer, Dudley Best, Charles French and James Kershaw. He built up an enormous collection of butterflies and moths, at first from country areas near Melbourne and then from the Gisborne area and other States. A correspondence begun with the National Museum of Victoria in 1902 resulted in his magnanimously donating the collection to the museum in 1932 and working until 1946 to amalgamate it with the museum's existing Lepidoptera holdings. Lyell continued to add to the collection until in 1951 it stood at 51,216 specimens, representing 6177 species and 534 types: not only remarkable in its extent, but 'an everlasting monument to the neatness and skill of its donor', it still forms the major part of the museum's Lepidoptera collection.

Lyell contributed papers and notes to the Victorian Naturalist, mainly between 1890 and 1929. In 1914 with G. A. Waterhouse he published Butterflies of Australia, the first comprehensive work on the subject and a valuable reference book for almost twenty years. He also took a deep interest in native orchids and his valuable collection of pressed orchids from all over Australia was bequeathed to the National Herbarium, Melbourne.

'Genial and likeable', Lyell was remembered as 'an excellent companion on a ramble'. At 80 he could still enjoy a walk of several miles although, after a serious illness in 1931, he had given up night collecting; he was 84 before he admitted his field days were over. A devout Presbyterian who supported many local organizations, he died at Gisborne on 19 May 1951, and was cremated. His wife predeceased him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • R. T. M. Pescott, Collections of a Century (Melb, 1954)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1905, 2 (10), p 309
  • Wild Life (Melbourne), June 1951, p 593
  • Victorian Naturalist, 68 (1951-52), p 53.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. Neboiss, 'Lyell, George (1866–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 25 November 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 10

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