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McCoy, Sir Frederick (1817–1899)

by G. C. Fendley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Frederick McCoy (1817-1899), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co., c1870

Frederick McCoy (1817-1899), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co., c1870

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29553

Sir Frederick McCoy (1817-1899), professor and museum director, was born in Dublin, son of Simon McCoy, physician and professor of materia medica, Queen's College, Galway (1849-73). He began medical studies in Dublin but soon turned to palaeontology and natural history. In 1841 his catalogues of the museum of the Dublin Geological Society and of the shells and organic remains of the Sirr collections in the Dublin Rotunda were published. He then worked for Sir Richard Griffith, classifying his collections which were embodied in A Synopsis of the Characters of the Carboniferous Limestone Fossils of Ireland in 1844 and A Synopsis of the Silurian Fossils of Ireland in 1846. In 1845 McCoy joined the staff of the British Geological Survey. He worked on the Geological Map of Ireland until late in 1846 when he was chosen by Adam Sedgwick as his collaborator in the Woodwardian Museum, Cambridge. McCoy's 'enormous' and 'unremitting' labours in classifying the great collection of British fossils astonished Sedgwick who wrote of 'this excellent naturalist', 'incomparable and most philosophical palaeontologist'. In August 1849 McCoy became professor of geology and mineralogy and curator of the museum at Queen's College, Belfast. In vacations he worked at Cambridge and on excursions with Sedgwick and prepared A Detailed Systematic Description of the British Palaeozoic Fossils in the Geological Museum of the University of Cambridge which appeared serially from 1849. Professor Heinrich Bronn of Heidelberg greeted the work as 'one of the most important appearances in the literature of Palaeontology'. McCoy's prodigious flow of articles in learned journals had begun in 1838. In August 1854 he published Contributions to British Palaeontology, a reprint of contributions to the Annals and Magazine of Natural History, where twenty-eight of his articles appeared in 1845-54.

In August 1854 a committee of Sir William à Beckett, Robert Lowe, Professor Henry Malden, Sir John Herschel and G. B. Airy chose McCoy professor of natural science, one of the first four professors of the University of Melbourne which opened in April 1855. He was offered £1000 a year and a house but no assurance of museum work. He lectured in the general laws of chemistry and, for the first time at an Australian university, in mineralogy, elements of botany, supervising a botanic garden at the university, comparative anatomy and physiology of animals, systematic zoology and 'Systematic and Practical Geology with some Palaeontology', in a three-year arts course. Students remained few. McCoy opposed his colleagues' utilitarian arguments against compulsory classics and became associated rather with the inadequacies of science teaching than the advocacy of its extension. Students in 1884 complained of 'botany in a lecture room and not in a garden', 'lectures in Zoology without practical demonstrations' and that 'no geology excursion is ever made'. Agitation produced a chair of chemistry in 1882 and of biology in 1887. McCoy continued after 1886 to teach 'systematic zoology and botany, physical and stratigraphical geology, mineralogy and palaeontology'.

A government museum collection had begun in 1853, but languished in storage in 1855. McCoy persuaded the governor to ask the university for accommodation. The university, pressing the government for completion of its buildings, agreed to allot rooms in the plan. From October the Philosophical Institute (later Royal Society) of Victoria and the press agitated against the museum's removal from town and probable control by the university. In July 1856 the institute ungraciously allowed McCoy to read part of a paper in which he advocated a museum for scientific research and education but not idle shows, and appointment of a director. In August, after a public meeting of protest and unsure of government resolve, McCoy boldly carried off the collection to the newly-completed university rooms. His de facto control ended in December 1857 when he was gazetted 'Director of the Museum of Natural and Applied Sciences', an office he held without salary until 1899. He had become government palaeontologist in May 1856 at a salary of £300. He fought to hold the museum at the university and in 1862 negotiated an agreement between the university and the government for a building in the university grounds. The National Museum, almost a facsimile of Ruskin's new Oxford Museum, with stone Gothic windows, a tower and a great hall 150 feet (46 m) long and 60 feet (18 m) wide, was opened in 1864.

McCoy's cavalier disregard of financial procedures exasperated governments. He built up an outstanding natural history and geological collection, including mining models, exploiting his knowledge of overseas sources. In 1870 the museum was placed under the Public Library trustees. The struggle to make him docile began. McCoy countered with pugnacity, soft answers or feigned obtuseness. Ever pestering for funds and uncovering trustees' plots to move the museum, he found his best defence and consolation in the popularity and scientific standing of the museum. Annual attendances averaged 53,000 in the 1860s, 95,000 in the 1870s, 110,000 in the 1880s and 108,000 in the 1890s. Painfully he acquired government money to publish serially his Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria (1878-90) and Prodromus of the Paleontology of Victoria (1874-82). McCoy was a naturalist who stayed indoors. His energies and curiosity were absorbed as sole scientific officer in classifying the museum's flood of acquisitions. Aboriginal artefacts he ignored.

McCoy became unfortunately associated with the ecological disruptions occasioned by exotic fauna. He was a leading member of the Acclimatisation Society (later Victorian Zoological Society) founded in 1861 to introduce mammals, fish and birds. In 1862 he urged the 'enlivening' of 'the present savage silence, or worse' of the bush with 'the varied, touching, joyous strains of those delightful reminders of our early home', the English song-birds; he also reported the release of a number of species, the origin of present flocks. Though not responsible for its introduction he rejoiced at the rabbit being 'so thoroughly acclimatized that it swarms in hundreds in some localities and can at any time be extended to others'. His defence of the introduced sparrow dismayed farmers.

In March 1856 McCoy told the select committee of the Legislative Council on gold that the search for deep reefs would prove vain. Later that year as chairman of a royal commission on aspects of the goldfields he visited the diggings and declared his 'Baconian method and general law by induction most completely proved'. Ignorant miners persisted and for years found profitable gold at 'heretical depths'. A royal commission on the University of Melbourne remembered this blot on geology in 1903, and his successor to the chair wrote a paper to prove McCoy was misunderstood, claiming that improved machines redefined 'profitable' reefs. Lesser community expectations of geological inquiry and more caution from McCoy would have saved him public and parliamentary disparagement. His discomfort became for the colony the locus classicus for the presumption of theorists and the vindication of practical men.

McCoy was a member of the Council of the University of Melbourne in 1882-87, but retired aware of growing disquiet at professors serving on council. He was not a university politician, reformer or student favourite. Advancing age, the demands of the museum, the growth of knowledge and his ardent anti-Darwinism decreased his influence, but lack of professional employment depressed growth in all science classes. McCoy was one of those 'experienced naturalists' Darwin 'by no means expected to convince, whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine'. In June 1869 McCoy delivered a popular lecture of three hours, and another in July 1870, both published as The Order and Plan of Creation (1870), denying 'authority, either in scripture or science, for belief in the gradual transmutation from one species into another' and finding geological confirmation for the Genesis phases of creation.

McCoy served on the Royal Society of Victoria Council in the 1860s and was president in 1864 and vice-president in 1861 and 1870. An increasingly acrimonious debate, mainly in the society's Transactions, between McCoy and W. B. Clarke on the age of the New South Wales coal deposits proved a well fought but unfortunately rear-guard action for McCoy. In June 1858 he was appointed to a Board of Science 'to advise the government on all matters wherein special scientific and technical knowledge is required' and later reported on subjects from mining machinery to the use of camels. He was a commissioner for the Victorian (1861), Intercolonial (1866) and International (1880) Exhibitions. In 1869-90 he served on the technological commission which fostered the slow beginnings of technical education in Victoria, by encouraging and subsidizing Schools of Mines and of Design, and supporting a Museum of Technology (1870) which McCoy publicly advocated in vain as a centre of research and formal education in technology. He served on the royal commission on the administration, organization and general condition of education in 1882-84 but dissented from the final report's opposition to state aid for church schools.

McCoy accumulated honours: fellow (1852) and Murchison medalist (1879) in the Geological Society, London; F.R.S., 1880; honorary member of learned societies in Cambridge, Edinburgh, London, Manchester, Moscow, New Zealand and Sydney; D.Sc. (Cantab.), 1886; C.M.G., 1886; K.C.M.G., 1891; and royal honours from Italy and Austria. From 1886 he suffered periods of protracted bronchial illness. Still taking his professorial classes and examining at matriculation he fell ill in April and died on 13 May 1899. He was buried in Brighton cemetery, predeceased by his wife Anna Maria, née Harrison, whom he had married at Dublin in 1843, and by their son and daughter. By July his museum was closed to reopen in December 1899 at Russell Street on the site he had opposed since the 1850s. The vacated building became the Student Union.

Fiery, impulsive, resilient, unsuited to collective enterprises, proud of his robustness, smart in dress, McCoy was of medium height with waved reddish hair, side whiskers and a determined chin. He retained in old age his verve, his jaunty step and his capacity for geniality.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Kelly, Life in Victoria, vol 1 (Lond, 1859)
  • J. W. Clark and T. McK. Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick (Cambridge, 1890)
  • E. W. Skeats, Some Founders of Australian Geology (Syd, 1934)
  • J. S. Flett, The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey of Great Britain (Lond, 1937)
  • R. T. M. Pescott, Collections of a Century (Melb, 1954)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • T. W. Moody and J. C. Beckett, Queen's, Belfast 1845-1949 (Lond, 1959)
  • G. Blainey, The Rush that Never Ended (Melb, 1963)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Alma Mater (University of Melbourne), Apr, June 1899
  • Age (Melbourne), 15 May 1899.

Citation details

G. C. Fendley, 'McCoy, Sir Frederick (1817–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccoy-sir-frederick-4069/text6491, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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