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Waite, Edgar Ravenswood (1866–1928)

by C. J. M. Glover

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

Edgar Ravenswood Waite (1866-1928), zoologist and museum director, was born on 5 May 1866 at Leeds, Yorkshire, England, second son of John Waite, bankers clerk, and his wife Jane, née Vause. Edgar left the Leeds Parish Church Middle Class School for the borough accountant's office; his enthusiasm for natural science led him to read biology at Owens College, Manchester. In 1888 he was appointed assistant curator, and in 1891 curator, of the museum of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society (later Leeds City Museum) where he distinguished himself by cataloguing the collections, staging live exhibits, encouraging research and providing informative services. On 7 April 1892 he married Rose Edith Green at St Matthew's parish church, Leeds.

In 1893-1905 Waite was assistant curator in charge of vertebrates at the Australian Museum, Sydney. He accompanied the trawling expedition of H.M.C.S. Thetis and in 1899 published its scientific results. In 1906 he was appointed curator of the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, New Zealand. His many improvements included the introduction of exhibits and new display techniques, and the establishment (1907) and editing of the Records of the Canterbury Museum. Apart from his faunal work, the extensive studies he undertook of New Zealand and Antarctic fishes established him as a leading ichthyologist. Waite frequently participated in major land and sea expeditions, among them (Sir) Douglas Mawson's first subantarctic cruise in 1912, and edited Scientific Results of the New Zealand Government Trawling Expedition, 1907 (Canterbury, 1909, 1911), as well as writing 'Fishes of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition'. Early in 1914 he was appointed director of the South Australian Museum, a position he held until 1928. He established (1918) and edited the museum's Records. After leading the museum's expedition to Strzelecki and Cooper creeks (1916), he published the results in 1917 in the Transactions of the Royal Society, South Australia. In 1918 he made collecting trips to New Guinea, New Britain and New Ireland, and in 1926 inspected museums in the United States of America and Europe.

Waite published diversely and prolifically, mostly on vertebrate taxonomy, particularly fishes, reptiles and mammals: his important and well-known work on The Fishes of South Australia was published by the British Science Guild (Adelaide, 1923), as was The Reptiles and Amphibians of South Australia (Adelaide, 1929, edited by H. M. Hale). He was active in the Yorkshire Naturalists' Union, the Conchological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, the Leeds Naturalists' Club and the Leeds Geological Association. A fellow (1890) of the Linnean Society and a corresponding member of the Zoological Society, London, he was senior vice-president of the Royal Society of South Australia and councillor of the South Australian Zoological and Acclimatization Society. He was also an editor of the South Australian handbooks committee of the British Science Guild, a member of the Flora and Fauna Board of South Australia and of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, and a founding member and president of the South Australian Aquarium Society.

His early research on Australian vertebrate fauna had been highly regarded. Before Waite moved to New Zealand, he was already a leading ichthyologist and herpetologist; he later rose to be a world authority on the fishes of the Australasian-Antarctic region. An exceptionally capable and innovative museum administrator, by the mid-1920s he was at the zenith of his professional standing. Versatile, thorough, meticulous and highly productive, he had formidable accomplishments and had greatly influenced the development of natural science in South Australia.

Almost 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, Waite was bespectacled, with a domed forehead, symmetrical face, aquiline nose and an Edwardian beard. Imposing but gentle, with a dry sense of humour, he was held in affection and esteem by all who knew him well. Though reserved and of a retiring disposition, he possessed extraordinary enthusiasm and energy which extended to hobbies as varied as motor cycling, drawing, painting, photography, aquarium-keeping, philately and playing the flute.

Plagued with recurring ill health after having contracted malaria in New Guinea in 1918, Waite became gravely ill early in 1928 before leaving Adelaide to attend a meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in Tasmania. He died of enteric fever on 19 January 1928 in Highbury Hospital, Hobart, and was cremated. His wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • South Australian Museum, Records, May 1928, p 344, June 1956, pp i, 1
  • Royal Society of South Australia, Transactions, 52, Dec 1928, p 1
  • Mercury (Hobart), 20 Jan 1928
  • Register (Adelaide), 20 Jan 1928
  • family papers (privately held)
  • Waite papers (South Australian Museum and State Records of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

C. J. M. Glover, 'Waite, Edgar Ravenswood (1866–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/waite-edgar-ravenswood-8947/text15725, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 27 August 2014.

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

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