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Whitley, Gilbert Percy (1903–1975)

by Maree Murray and John Roach

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

Gilbert Percy Whitley (1903-1975), ichthyologist and author, was born on 9 June 1903 at Swaythling, near Southampton, England, eldest of three children of Percy Nathan Whitley, drapery buyer, and his wife Clara Minnie, née Moass. Gilbert was educated at King Edward VI School, Southampton, and at Osborne House school, Romsey, Hampshire. With his parents and two sisters, he migrated to Sydney in 1921. On 18 April 1922 he joined the staff of the Australian Museum and worked under Allan McCulloch. He studied zoology at Sydney Technical College (1922) and the University of Sydney (1924). Following McCulloch's death, on 2 October 1925 Whitley was appointed ichthyologist (later curator of fishes).

In 1923 he had published his first article, 'The Praying Mantis', in the Australian Museum Magazine. Whitley's prodigious output was to include over 550 papers and five books on his ichthyological interests—the fish (from seahorses to sharks) of Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and the South Pacific. He described hundreds of new genera and species and studied most aspects of Australian marine and freshwater fishes, including ecology, fisheries and taxonomy. His taxonomy revealed confidence and something of his impish nature: his 'little regard for rules of nomenclature' provoked disagreement and displeasure from international colleagues on more than one occasion. Keenly interested in history, especially that of biology and zoology, and the lives of early Australian naturalists, he delighted 'in digging up historical details' for colleagues. One major disappointment for Whitley was the trustees' decision not to publish his history of the Australian Museum. The manuscript was essentially a collector's history, strong on detail but lacking explanation and analysis.

During World War II, Whitley was rejected by the Royal Australian Air Force, despite his stated qualifications of 'drawing and languages'. Instead, he was seconded (1942-46) to the division of fisheries of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. He conducted investigations, including one into shark capture, to assess potential national food supplies. Well suited to such activity, Whitley was photographed (and remembered) with sleeves rolled up, looking into a microscope in the fisheries department, wading in tropical oceans or searching through a carpet of sea grass. He was a man engrossed in his work.

Throughout his curatorship, Whitley enhanced and expanded museum material, becoming well known for his enthusiasm. He particularly enjoyed foreign travel (usually at his own expense) and collecting expeditions with his friends Tom Iredale and Anthony Musgrave. His term of office was notable for the registration (involving identification and tagging) of some 37,000 specimens, which almost doubled the collection. His growing reputation impressed and inspired such donors as Melbourne Ward.

Whitley was president (1940-41, 1959-60 and 1973-74) and a fellow (1934) of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales; he edited its publications in 1947-71. He served on the councils of the Royal Australian Historical Society and the Anthropological Society of New South Wales, on the Great Barrier Reef Committee and as president (1963-64) of the Linnean Society of New South Wales; he was also involved with the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. Whitley was awarded the Natural History Medallion for 1967 by the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and the (W. B.) Clarke medal for 1970 by the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 1971 he funded the Whitley awards by the zoological society for outstanding publications containing significant information on Australasian fauna.

Known for his sense of humour, wit and outgoing nature, Whitley was warmly regarded by colleagues. One recalled his entering 'Genius and diligence' under 'Qualifications' in a Public Service Board survey; the incident also suggested his occasional impatience with authority. The Whitley papers held in the Australian Museum include the endearingly named 'Whitleyana'. One item, the 'Song of the Ichthyologist', an affectionate parody, contained the following lines:

Although it surely wasn't Gilbert's 'dearest wish',
He's been appointed nursemaid to a lot of stinking fish

Whitley retired in September 1964. His passion for work never waned; he continued his research throughout his retirement, just as he had on holidays and long service leave. Nevertheless, he was interested in all the arts. He played the piano, frequently attended concerts and the theatre and rarely missed a good film or art exhibition. Gilbert Whitley died on 18 July 1975 at his Mosman home and was cremated. He was unmarried.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Natural History, 14, Dec 1964, p 383
  • Australian Museum, Museum Newsheet, 10, no 1, 23 July 1975, p 1
  • Copeia, 4, Dec 1975, p 792
  • Australian Zoologist, 19, no 1, 1976, p 111
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 101, 1977, p 256
  • Whitley papers (State Library of New South Wales and Australian Academy of Science Library)
  • Whitley bibliography reference file (Australian Museum, Sydney).

Citation details

Maree Murray and John Roach, 'Whitley, Gilbert Percy (1903–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/whitley-gilbert-percy-12022/text21563, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 8 December 2016.

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

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