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Wakefield, Norman Arthur (1918–1972)

by Danielle Clode

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Norman Arthur Wakefield (1918-1972), naturalist, was born on 28 November 1918 at Romsey, Victoria, second of four children of Harold Richard Wakefield, saddler, and his wife Agnes Jane, née Gardner, both of whom were born in Victoria. Norman's early education at Orbost State and Higher Elementary schools was complemented by bush excursions with his father. He spent two years at Scotch College, Melbourne, before returning as a student-teacher to his old primary school. In 1937 at Melbourne Teachers' College, he was inspired by his lecturer in nature study, H. W. Wilson. Wakefield used his early postings to schools at Combienbar (1938-39), Bindi (1939) and Genoa (1940-41) to conduct extensive field-trips in Gippsland. He was an enthusiastic and energetic field-worker, with a particular interest in botany. Having been nominated by W. H. Nicholls, he joined the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria in 1938.

On 13 October 1941 Wakefield was mobilized in the Militia. He joined the 2nd Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, in May 1942, and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in November. After serving as a bombardier in Papua and New Guinea (1943-44), and on Bougainville (1944-45), he returned to Australia with a collection of ferns dried in the ovens of army kitchens and now housed in the British Museum, London, and the National Herbarium of Victoria, Melbourne. Discharged from the army on 7 September 1945, he continued teaching, principally at Cann River (1946-50) and Prahran (1951-55). On 17 November 1951 at the Methodist Church, Cheltenham, he married Eileen Mary Holdsworth, née Connley, a postmistress, and a divorcee; the marriage later ended in divorce.

In 1955 Wakefield consolidated his work by publishing Ferns of Victoria and Tasmania, and took up a lectureship in nature study at Melbourne Teachers' College. By 1957 he had described thirty-nine previously unknown plant species. He edited the F.N.C.V.'s journal, Victorian Naturalist, in 1952-57 and 1958-64, as well as contributing 126 articles—on subjects ranging from ornithology and botany to history—to its pages. The club awarded him honorary membership (1956) and the Australian natural history medallion (1962). Although he studied botany at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1960), he moved into zoological research and founded the F.N.C.V.'s fauna group. He was also a member of the Royal Society of Victoria. Beginning research at Monash University (M.Sc., 1969) into the sub-fossil deposits in caves, he wrote his thesis on 'late Pleistocene and recent cave-deposits in south-eastern Australia'. This expertise enabled him to identify in 1966 a living mountain pygmy possum, Burramys parvus, a species previously known only from fossils.

From 1966 Wakefield lectured in biology at Monash Teachers' College. He published widely in both international and local journals. In 1972 his work received international attention in Nature, when he reported the discovery of the oldest known fossil footprints (355 million years old) near the Genoa River. He reached an even wider public audience with his regular columns in the Age in 1963-71, some of which were published as A Naturalist's Diary (1967). Additionally, he broadcast on the study of nature for schools. His commitment to the public aspects of biology was demonstrated by the time he devoted to the committees of management of the Mallacoota Inlet National Park and the Lakes National Park, and the Victorian National Parks Association.

Wakefield was a gifted teacher and communicator. His somewhat imposing and solemn appearance belied a nature which his colleague J. W. Willis described as 'gentle, cheerful, helpful, open-hearted, honourable, meticulous and tidy'. Courageous and tenacious, he inspired confidence and was 'loyal and stalwart'. At the Cairns Memorial Church, East Melbourne, on 10 September 1968 he had married with Presbyterian forms Audrey Isobel Wilson, a 34-year-old lecturer. On 23 September 1972, while lopping branches from a tree at his Sherbrooke home, he fell and was killed. Survived by his wife, he was cremated. He left a lasting legacy to both amateur and professional biology in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • Victorian Naturalist, 81, Nov 1964, p 192, 89, Oct 1972, p 2, 90, Apr 1973, p 103
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Sept 1972
  • Keith Dempster papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Danielle Clode, 'Wakefield, Norman Arthur (1918–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wakefield-norman-arthur-11933/text21381, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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