Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shaw, George (1751–1813)

by J. H. Calaby

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

George Shaw (1751-1813), naturalist, was born on 10 December 1751 at Bierton, Buckinghamshire, England, son of Rev. Timothy Shaw. He was educated by his father until 1765 when he entered Magdalen College, Oxford (B.A., 1769; M.A., 1772). He was ordained deacon in 1774. Because of his love of natural history he abandoned the church as a profession, studied medicine at Edinburgh for three years, and then returned to Oxford as deputy-lecturer in botany. In 1787 he was admitted to the degrees of M.B. and M.D., after which he began practice in London. He took part in founding the Linnean Society of London in 1788 and in 1789 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. In 1791 he was appointed to the natural history section of the British Museum, and in 1807 became keeper, a position he retained until his death on 22 July 1813.

Shaw's life as a professional naturalist coincided with the early years of the colonization of eastern Australia. The colonists were very interested in the novel fauna which they encountered, and specimens of the strange creatures were sent to Sir Joseph Banks and other savants in England. Many of the novelties came into the hands of Shaw and he published the first descriptions with scientific names of several of the common and best known Australian animals, for example, the platypus, echidna, wombat, budgerigar and black snake. He provided the well-known generic name (Macropus) for the common grey kangaroo.

Shaw could not conceal his scepticism when describing so extraordinary a creature as the platypus and was not entirely convinced that the specimen was not a fake. It was the only one known at the time and is still preserved in the British Museum (Natural History). Among the many animals first made known to science by Shaw was the remarkable Australian musk duck, described from a historic specimen collected at King George Sound in 1791 when that place was discovered and named by George Vancouver.

As was common among naturalists of his day Shaw covered a wide field and the subjects of his accounts include mammals, birds, reptiles, fishes and some invertebrates. The chief works in which he described Australian animals are: Zoology of New Holland (1794), The Naturalists' Miscellany … 1-24 (1789-1813), and General Zoology, 1-8 (1800-12). He also contributed part of the account of the animals in John White's Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales … (1790). The majority are contained in the Naturalists' Miscellany, and are accompanied by coloured engravings by Frederick Polydore Nodder. The descriptions are brief and some of the subjects cannot be identified without Nodder's mediocre illustrations. Shaw's standards were typical of his day, however, and it was not until later, when intensive exploration of the non-European world brought to light such a wealth of previously unknown creatures, that detailed critical descriptions were found to be a necessity.

Citation details

J. H. Calaby, 'Shaw, George (1751–1813)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shaw-george-2651/text3697, published in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Birth

10 December 1751
Bierton, Buckinghamshire, England

Death

22 July 1813

Cultural Heritage
Occupation