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William Bryden (1904–1992)

by Peter Mercer

This article was published:

William Bryden (1904-1992), museum director, geneticist, and educator, was born on 30 December 1904 at Martinborough, New Zealand, son of Scottish-born James Bryden, bootmaker, and his English-born wife Amanda Helen, née Syvret. William attended Kaiapoi and Rangiora High schools, and Canterbury College (later the University of Canterbury), Christchurch (BSc, 1926; MSc, 1927). He was mathematics and science master at Christchurch Technical College until 1931, when he was awarded an overseas research scholarship. At the University of Edinburgh he completed a PhD in genetics (1933) and earned a rugby blue.

On 29 August 1933 at Rosewell Parish Church, Church of Scotland, near Edinburgh, Bryden married Scottish-born Muriel McLaren. He taught in English public schools in 1933 and 1934, before returning to Christchurch Technical College as head of the natural science department. In 1936 his contribution to the study of genetics was recognised by his election to the fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. That year he was appointed warden of the Melbourne University Union. A grant from the Carnegie Corporation in 1937 enabled him to spend six months touring universities in the United States of America, Canada, and Britain. He became headmaster at Knox Grammar School, Sydney, in 1940. Bryden led school field trips to Ayers Rock (Uluru) to collect flora and fauna specimens. In 1950 his party of six masters and twenty-two Knox Grammar students was joined by anthropologist, Charles P. Mountford.

Bryden was appointed director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in 1953. Immediately embroiled in the controversy then raging over Truganini’s remains, he rejected calls to remove her skeleton from the museum on the grounds that her memory would be best served by conserving it for future researchers. He later published The Story of the Tasmanian Aboriginals (1960).

Most museums in the 1950s were dark, drab places with collections aimed more at the study needs of specialists than the general public. Bryden played a leading role in the change that took place in the presentation of museum collections during that decade. By 1953 the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery had not seen an expansion of its premises for more than half a century. It was underfunded, understaffed, and congested. Despite these constraints, Bryden began the task of reorganising the displays to make them more interesting and attractive to members of the public. The opening of a new wing in 1966 provided much-needed additional space for exhibitions, staff offices, and the storage of collections, allowing the museum to become a vibrant part of the Tasmanian community.

Complementing a warm, likeable, and outgoing personality, Bryden’s wide-ranging experience, wisdom, and qualities of leadership benefited the numerous cultural and scientific bodies on which he served. He was honorary secretary (1953-71), vice-president (1973-75), and honorary treasurer (1977) of the Royal Society of Tasmania; chairman of the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council; chairman (1964-74) of the state committee of the Duke of Edinburgh Award; president of the Hobart Repertory Theatre Society; member (1973-79) of the state advisory committee of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation; and trustee of the Van Diemen’s Land Memorial Folk Museum.

Appointed CBE in 1963 for his work with the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Bryden was awarded an honorary doctorate of science by the University of Tasmania in 1972. He retired that year. He moved in 1983 to Buderim, Queensland, where, survived by his wife and three sons, he died on 16 December 1992.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • ‘Dr W. Bryden.’ Sydney Morning Herald. 1 September 1939, 5
  • ‘New Museum Director Appointed.’ Mercury. 9 June 1953, 1
  • Burbury, Stanley. ‘William Bryden.’ Royal Society of Edinburgh, Obituaries. Copy on ADB file
  • Mercer, Peter. ‘A Short History of the Tasmania Museum and Art Gallery.’ Unpublished manuscript, 1999. Copy held by author
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Royal Society of Tasmania. Annual Report. Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1992

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Mercer, 'Bryden, William (1904–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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