Australian Dictionary of Biography

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White, Samuel Albert (1870–1954)

by R. W. Linn

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

Samuel Albert White (1870-1954), ornithologist and conservationist, was born on 20 December 1870 at Reedbeds (Fulham), Adelaide, son of Samuel White, ornithologist, and his wife Martha Elsea, née Taylor. Educated at several private schools, he claimed to have received his best schooling at Christian Brothers' College and retained allegiance to Catholicism. From the age of 16 Samuel made his first extensive birdwatching expeditions, along the Murray River and to Western Australia. He also became a noted racehorse owner. He inherited money and received income from land rents and agistment fees. During the South African War he had two tours of duty and was temporarily promoted captain, a title he used thereafter. In 1903 he made a big-game expedition in Africa and collected scientific specimens along the east coast. On 19 April 1906 in Adelaide he married Ethel Rosina Toms (d.1926) in two ceremonies with Anglican and Catholic rites; they were to remain childless.

His most arduous and important work as a naturalist occurred when he collaborated with Gregory Mathews on The Birds of Australia (London, 1910-27). To this end, White mounted major collecting expeditions, often accompanied by his wife. He travelled with camels to Alice Springs and beyond (1913), with a government team to the Musgrave and Everard ranges (1914), and with the South Australian Museum expedition to Cooper Creek (1916); he also went to the Nullarbor Plains (1917-18), with Sir Edgeworth David and Professor Walter Howchin to the Finke River (1921), and in 1922 led the great adventure from Adelaide to Darwin and back, using three Dort motor cars supplied and serviced by Adelaide mechanics Cyril and Murray Aunger.

White's outstanding achievement lay in completing an ornithological survey of the whole of South Australia and much of the Northern Territory. He was the first European to see several species and regarded the Princess Alexandra parrot as the world's most beautiful bird. A keen conservationist, he was a central figure in the declaration of national parks in the State and was a noted spokesman on insects, birds and botany. He had cultivated the friendship of the Aborigines of Central Australia and defended them publicly.

A short, wiry man, with a handlebar moustache, White addressed public meetings, schools and government seminars, attracting large attendances and becoming known throughout Australia. He also contributed to the press, wrote booklets about his journeys, and saw his work published in scientific journals at home and abroad: a list appears in Hubert Whittell's The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954). White's most notable publications included The Gawler Ranges (1913), Into the Dead Heart (1914) and The Life of Samuel White (1920).

President of the South Australian Ornithological Association (1904 and 1911) and of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union (1914-16), White was a corresponding member of the British Ornithologists' and the American Ornithologists' unions. He chaired the Advisory Board of Agriculture and was State chief commissioner (1923-31) of the Boy Scouts' Association. In St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, on 12 July 1927 he married 22-year-old Muriel Mary Fisher; they toured Asia and the Pacific. White died on 19 January 1954 at his home, Weetunga, Fulham, and was buried in Morphett Vale cemetery; his wife, son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. M. Mathews (ed), Austral Avian Record, vol 3 (Lond, 1919)
  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • R. Linn, Nature's Pilgrim (Adel, 1989), and for bibliography
  • South Australian Ornithologist, 21, pts 2-3, 25 June 1954
  • Sydney Mail, 22 Feb 1922
  • Observer (Adelaide), 23 Apr 1904, 1 May 1926, 9 July 1927
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 20 Jan 1954.

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Citation details

R. W. Linn, 'White, Samuel Albert (1870–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-samuel-albert-9079/text16007, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 11 December 2017.

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

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