Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tillyard, Robin John (1881–1937)

by K. R. Norris and D. F. Waterhouse

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Robin John Tillyard (1881-1937), naturalist and entomologist, was born on 31 January 1881 at Norwich, Norfolk, England, and named Robert, son of John Joseph Tillyard, solicitor, and his wife Mary Ann Frances, née Wilson. Educated at Dover College, he took up a scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge (B.A., 1903; M.A., 1907), being placed senior optime in the mathematics tripos. After reading oriental languages and theology, in 1904 Robin abandoned ideas of joining the Church, but a search for health took him to Australia where he taught mathematics and science at Sydney Grammar School in 1904-13. Progressively more absorbed with studies on insects, he resigned to study zoology at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1914).

The Linnean Macleay fellowship (1915-20) in zoology allowed him full time for research: his broadening interests were reflected in publications on dragonflies, lacewings and scorpionflies. He became particularly interested in the phylogeny of a group of higher insect orders which he called the panorpoid complex. The year after he published his classic work, The Biology of Dragonflies (Cambridge, 1917), he was awarded a D.Sc. (1918) by the University of Sydney; he also received a Sc.D. (1920) from the University of Cambridge. His knowledge of aquatic insects led the New Zealand government to invite him in 1919 to investigate diminishing trout numbers. He was chief of the biology department of the Cawthron Institute at Nelson, New Zealand, in 1921-28. Following the biological control in France of the woolly aphis apple pest with a parasite introduced from North America, Tillyard established the same parasite so successfully in New Zealand that he was encouraged to advocate biological control of other pests. During 1921-24, largely single-handed and despite severe ill health, he wrote The Insects of Australia and New Zealand (Sydney, 1926), a book which gave enormous impetus to the study of entomology. In England in 1926 he canvassed the advantages of biological control and obtained valuable financial support. There was little success, however, at that time from campaigns against further insect pests and weeds in New Zealand.

Tillyard's reputation prompted the newly created Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Australia to offer him the position of Chief of the Division of Economic Entomology in Canberra. At first reluctant, he eventually accepted in 1928. He maintained what was then a far-sighted advocacy of biological control, but in the absence of any early successes the council became disillusioned. Its attitude, combined with some of Tillyard's not very felicitous interactions with staff members and his increasing restiveness with administrative matters, made the early 1930s an unfulfilling time for him. Primarily a systematist with a broad interest in the natural history of insects, Tillyard was neither an applied entomologist nor an ecologist; surprisingly, he made no use of his mathematical talents in his research. One of his achievements was to establish insect taxonomy within the division. He also made important contributions to insect palaeontology.

He received many honours and was a member of many scientific bodies. A fellow (1925) of the Royal Society, London, and honorary fellow (1928) of Queens' College, Cambridge, Tillyard received the Crisp prize and medal (1917) of the Linnean Society, London, the (W. B.) Clarke medal (1931) of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and the Mueller medal (1935). His scientific publications (over 200) are listed in Anthony Musgrave's Bibliography of Australian Entomology, 1775-1930 (Sydney, 1932) and in an unpublished supplement.

Throughout his life Tillyard was plagued by pain, ill health and accidents; a railway crash in 1914 was responsible for his badly bent back. Following a nervous breakdown after the Pan-Pacific Science Congress in Chicago in 1933, he resigned in February 1934. Despite his physical frailty, he had an intense vitality and the 'enthusiasm of a delighted schoolboy'. His forehead was high and his keen brown eyes gave shrewd appraisal through his large spectacles. Egocentric, with a mercurial disposition, he was a convincing and dramatic lecturer whose conversation reflected alertness, wit and 'puckish humour'. While spiritualism absorbed him in his later years, he took a keen interest in civic affairs and higher education; he was a councillor of Canberra University College and joint editor of the Australian National Review.

He died on 13 January 1937 in Goulburn District Hospital from injuries received in a car accident, and was buried in the churchyard of the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra. On 23 June 1909 in Sydney he had married Pattie Craske, a loyal and stabilizing influence in his life. With four daughters, she survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Musgrave, Bibliography of Australian Entomology 1775-1930 (Syd, 1932)
  • J. W. Evans, John Murtagh Macrossan Lecture (Brisb, 1962)
  • J. W. Evans, The Life and Work of R. J. Tillyard 1881-1937 (Brisb, 1963)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 71 (1946), p 252
  • New Zealand Entomologist, 6, no 3, 1977, p 305
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Aug 1970
  • series 3, PH/TIL/2 and series 67 (CSIRO Archives, Canberra).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

K. R. Norris and D. F. Waterhouse, 'Tillyard, Robin John (1881–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tillyard-robin-john-8817/text15465, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Tillyard, Robert
Birth

31 January 1881
Norwich, Norfolk, England

Death

13 January 1937
Goulburn, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation