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Ramsay, Edward Pierson (1842–1916)

by A. H. Chisholm

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Edward Pierson Ramsay (1842-1916), ornithologist and zoologist, was born on 3 December 1842 at Dobroyd (Ashfield), New South Wales, son of Dr David Ramsay and his wife Sarah Ann, daughter of Simeon Lord. Educated at Macquarie Fields under G. F. Macarthur he entered St Paul's College, University of Sydney, in 1863 to study medicine but left in 1865 without a degree. Interested in natural history from boyhood, at 17 he corresponded with Governor Denison on conchology. He had briefly visited New Zealand in 1861 and next year was founding treasurer of the Entomological Society of New South Wales where he exhibited specimens.

Elected to the local Philosophical Society in 1865, Ramsay devoted himself mainly to bird-collecting. In 1866 he went to the Clarence and Richmond rivers to get specimens of the recently discovered Rufous Scrub-bird, Atrichornis rufescens. On 20 December he became a corresponding member of the Zoological Society, London, where he began publishing. He was in close contact with prominent European zoologists, including John Gould and Sir Richard Owen. In December 1867 Ramsay opened the Dobroyd New Plant and Seed Nursery on his share of the Dobroyd estate that he had inherited in 1862. Next year he went to Queensland, bought the Iindah sugar plantation in the Maryborough district and worked it for some years with indifferent success.

Ramsay's connexion with the Australian Museum had begun in 1860 but Gerard Krefft saw him 'as an enemy of mine of long standing on account of my refusing to purchase the rubbish he used to offer'. In 1874 Ramsay emerged as the trustees' protégé and on 22 September they illegally confirmed his appointment as curator, but his position was not confirmed by the government until 1876. As curator in 1874-94 Ramsay built up the museum's collections, corresponded with many scientists, contributed to taxonomic literature and exhibited his work before the local Linnean Society, of which he had been a founder in 1874. He added some 17,600 bird skins, including the Dobroyde Collection made by the Ramsay brothers. He also built on the foundations of Australian ichthyology laid by W. J. Macleay and published over thirty ichthyological papers, mostly in the Proceedings of the local Linnean Society. Between 1876 and 1894 his Catalogue of the Australian Birds in the Australian Museum at Sydney appeared in four parts and in March 1890 he began publishing the Records of the museum.

A trustee of Hyde, Phillip and Cook parks from 1878 and of the Zoological Station, Watsons Bay, from 1879, Ramsay served on the royal commission into the fisheries in 1880 and in 1882 became a member of the fisheries commission. From 1878 he served on exhibition commissions for New South Wales and won repute for his exhibits and photographic arrangements of colonial produce and phenomena. In March 1883 he visited London as official representative for New South Wales and Tasmania at the Great International Fisheries Exhibition and inspected 'the most important of the museums, aquaria and zoological gardens in Great Britain and the Continent'. He learnt new techniques, arranged exchanges and negotiated the purchase of Dr Francis Day's collection of Indian fishes. He visited Naples in 1884 and was made a knight of the Crown of Italy.

A councillor of the local Royal and Linnean societies, Ramsay contributed to botany, herpetology and mammalogy and continued Krefft's and A. M. Thomson's work of exploring the caves and rivers of New South Wales. He dredged extensively in Port Jackson, sometimes with Nicholas Maclay. For his part in arranging David Berry's bequest to the University of St Andrew's, he was made LL.D. in 1886. Ramsay was a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Geographical Society of London and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. In Melbourne in January 1890 he presided over the Biology Section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.

In 1893 Ramsay took extended sick leave, visited New Zealand and resigned on 31 December 1894. Companionable and competent, he was consulting ornithologist to the museum till 1909. He died of carcinoma of the stomach at Croydon Park on 16 December 1916 and was buried in the Presbyterian cemetery, Haberfield. He was survived by his wife Ellen Eliza, daughter of Captain H. T. Fox, whom he had married at Burwood on 7 November 1876, and by four daughters and two sons, of whom John Simeon Pierson became a well-known ornithologist, specializing in photography.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1883-84, 7, 1231, 1885-86, 4, 481, 1889, 6, 431
  • R. Etheridge, ‘Obituary notice’, Australian Museum, Records, 11 (1917)
  • A. H. Chisholm, ‘The story of the Scrub-birds’, Emu, 51 (1951)
  • G. P. Whitley, ‘A survey of Australian ichthyology’, Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 89 (1964)
  • Sydney Mail, 10 Mar 1883
  • Australasian, 6 Dec 1884, 5 Jan 1895
  • G. P. Whitley, History of the Australian Museum (Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • Gould letters and papers and Mathews collection (National Library of Australia)
  • Mueller letters and Ramsay letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Minute books, 1863-74, 1874-79 (Australian Museum, Sydney)
  • Philosophical Society of New South Wales, Minute book, 1856-65 (Royal Society of New South Wales, Sydney).

Citation details

A. H. Chisholm, 'Ramsay, Edward Pierson (1842–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ramsay-edward-pierson-4446/text7237, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 24 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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