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Whitelegge, Thomas (1850–1927)

by Gwen Baker and Jim Lowry

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

Thomas Whitelegge (1850-1927), naturalist, was born on 7 August 1850 at Stockport, Cheshire, England, son of Moses Whitelegg, an illiterate bricklayer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Grant. Born into poverty, Thomas left school at the age of 8 and worked in factories around Cheshire. Apprenticed to a hatter, he broke his indentures. He lived as a fugitive for two years on a farm at Hurstbrook, Lancashire, where he developed an interest in natural history and obtained work as a journeyman with a hat manufacturer who was sympathetic to his plight.

When his life became less troubled, Whitelegge read and attended lectures in natural history. Interested in geology, he began a fossil collection which brought him into contact with the local societies of artisan naturalists. In 1874 he joined the Ashton-under-Lyne Linnean Botanical Society and began to study botany. He quickly gained a reputation for his knowledge of local natural history, particularly microscopic pond life. In his early twenties he founded the Ashton Biological Society, began publishing authoritative natural history articles in local newspapers and taught botany at the Albion Schools. On 26 July 1880 he married Ellen Steele in the United Methodist Free Church, Ashton-under-Lyne. His research into plant reproductive strategies led him into a correspondence with Charles Darwin.

After his mother died, Whitelegge migrated with his family in 1882; they reached Sydney in the Euterpe on 12 February 1883. Finding work as a plasterer and in a brewery, he soon met Rev. Julian Tenison-Woods, president of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. Proposed for membership by (Sir) William Macleay, Whitelegge attended the society's weekend gatherings at Macleay's Elizabeth Bay House. He also joined the Royal Society of New South Wales that year. Through this circle of naturalists and professional scientists, he met E. P. Ramsay, curator of the Australian Museum, where he was given a temporary position. Whitelegge investigated oyster pests of New South Wales for the museum's trustees in 1884 and in 1887 was appointed senior scientific assistant in charge of lower invertebrates. That year his wife died after childbirth, leaving five children, the youngest two hours old.

Whitelegge was a biologist in the broadest sense. As a botanist, he was an authority on mosses and produced a catalogue of the frondose mosses of Australia. As a zoologist, he wrote on many invertebrate phyla: Protozoa, Porifera, Cnidaria, Annelida, Crustacea and Echinodermata. Between 1897 and 1907 he published important papers on the invertebrates of Funafuti, on those of Port Jackson, and on the crustaceans and sponges collected by the Thetis expedition. His most important work was the 'List of the marine and fresh-water Invertebrates of Port Jackson and neighborhood': the Royal Society of New South Wales published it in its Journal and Proceedings in 1889 and awarded him a special medal. His descriptions of the benthic environment of the inner port are still used as a base line for measuring environmental change.

A councillor (1890-96) of the local Linnean Society, Whitelegge was elected a fellow (1889) of the Royal Microscopical Society, London. He taught botany for many years at the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts and at Sydney Technical College. Thin-faced, with a bony nose, dark hair and handlebar moustache, he was 'unassuming and modest of bearing'. In 1908 he resigned from the Australian Museum, but retained a small post at the National Herbarium, Botanic Gardens. He remained an active associate of the museum and the gardens, though he stopped publishing in 1908. Survived by two daughters and a son, Whitelegge died on 4 August 1927 in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Museum Magazine, 3, no 4, 1927, p 133
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 53, 1928, p 3
  • Records of the Australian Museum, 17, no 6, 1929, p 264, and for publications
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Aug 1927
  • Hunt Institute biographies (Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • Whitelegge papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Gwen Baker and Jim Lowry, 'Whitelegge, Thomas (1850–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitelegge-thomas-9081/text16009, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 January 2018.

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

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