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Skertchly, Sydney Barber Josiah (1850–1926)

by E. N. Marks

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sydney Barber Josiah Skertchly (1850-1926), scientist, was born on 14 December 1850, at Ansty, Leicestershire, England, son of Joseph Skertchly, engineer, and his wife Sarah Moseley, née Barber. Befriended and inspired in adolescence by Alfred Tylor, the geologist and anthropologist, he was outstanding at King Edward's School, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, winning the Queen's gold, silver and bronze medals for science. He attended the Royal School of Mines, London, was a student of Ralph Tate, (Sir) A. C. Ramsay and T. H. Huxley, and knew Sir Charles Lyell while assistant curator at the Geological Society, London. In late 1869 Skertchly went to Egypt as assistant geologist to the khedive. His scientific observations during extensive travels led to correspondence and friendship with Charles Darwin.

During the next decade, as geologist in the Fenland and East Anglia for H.M. Geological Survey of Britain, Skertchly did his best scientific work, mapping the Post-Tertiary deposits and studying the gun-flint industry. He discovered and named the Brandon Beds and dated palaeolithic implements to before the maximum Pleistocene glaciation. A member of the Geological Society, London, from 1871, in 1876 he published his controversial conclusions about human antiquity in Nature. Skertchly contributed to James Geikie's second edition of The Great Ice Age (1877). In 1880 he became a member of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London.

After a serious accident he resigned from the survey and travelled in France and Italy with his wife Rachel Ellen, née Kemp, whom he had married in London on 26 June 1871; they were a devoted couple. One of the first lecturers in the English university extension scheme, Skertchly designed the first series of English science textbooks written by professional scientists, introduced the system of relief maps and assisted in drawing up the scheme for technical education. He published books on geology, physiography, the universe and the Fenland and completed Tylor's Colouration in Animals and Plants (1886), which was illustrated by Mrs Skertchly. Then, as a geologist, he went to California, Borneo and China, becoming professor of botany in the College of Medicine for Chinese, Hong Kong, where Sun Yat-Sen was one of his students.

The Sino-Japanese war led him to move to Brisbane in 1891. In 1895-97 he was assistant government geologist in the Geological Survey of Queensland, publishing reports on mines in the Herberton-Chillagoe and Warwick-Stanthorpe areas. He was in the Chillagoe district again in 1898. President of the Royal Society of Queensland that year, Skertchly was a founder and first president of the Field Naturalists' Club in 1906 and was significant in developing its character, emphasizing the importance of 'clubability' and informal intellectual discussions. His friend A. H. Longman described him as 'a most remarkable and many-sided man with a distinct touch of genius … quick-brained, silver-tongued, with a retentive memory, he had a marvellous range of knowledge and distinctive literary style'. Queenslanders knew him as a genial, sturdy man of medium height, bald-headed with shrewd, humorous eyes, moustached and bearded, always with a pipe, a fascinating and witty raconteur.

Skertchly lectured widely and for many years wrote on natural history and science for the Brisbane Courier, providing stimulus and inspiration by his intense love of Nature. In 1910-25 he was president of the examining board of the Queensland Institute of Ophthalmic Opticians, involved in the campaign (successful in 1917) for legislative regulation of the profession. He was also sometime president of the Child Study Association of Queensland.

In 1917 Skertchly retired to the Nerang district where he took an interest in local Aborigines. He died at Molendinar on 2 February 1926, survived by a daughter and a son. The societies Skertchly had supported raised a fund to erect a massive granite memorial stone over his grave in Nerang cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Lees, Goldfields of Queensland 1858 to 1899 (Brisb, 1899)
  • Queensland Naturalist, 5, 1926, p 70, 13, 1946, p 26, 18, 1968, p 92
  • E. N. Marks, ‘A history of the Queensland Philosophical Society and the Royal Society of Queensland from 1859 to 1911’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, 71, 1959, p 17
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, 33, 1921, p 129, 38, 1926, p 1
  • Brisbane Courier, 3 Feb 1926
  • Queenslander, 6 Feb 1926, 10 July 1926, 10 Nov 1927
  • H. R. Brier, Australian Optometrical Association, Queensland Division, 1908-1958 (typescript, 1975?, privately held)
  • Hunt Institute biographies (Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • newscliipings book (History Unit, Queensland Dept of Education, Brisbane)
  • EDU/45, 1909 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

E. N. Marks, 'Skertchly, Sydney Barber Josiah (1850–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skertchly-sydney-barber-josiah-8443/text14841, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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