Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Charles Walter de Vis (1829–1915)

by L. A. Gilbert

This article was published:

Charles Walter de Vis (1829-1915), clergyman, zoologist and museum director, was born on 9 May 1829 at Birmingham, England, son of James Devis and Mary, née Chambers. The family was related to portrait painters of the same name. From Edward VI Grammar School, Birmingham, Charles went to Magdalene College, Cambridge (B. A., 1851; M. A., 1884). He was made deacon in 1851 and in 1853 was appointed rector of St John's, Brecon, Wales, but a keen interest in natural history led him to become curator of the Queen's Park Museum, Rochdale, Manchester. There he wrote his earliest scientific papers and joined the Anthropological Society.

De Vis left England in June 1870 for Queensland. He settled first at Black Gin Creek, near Rockhampton, and then at Clermont. After a visit to England he became librarian of the Rockhampton School of Arts. In 1880-81, under the pseudonym of 'Thickthorn', he contributed articles on geology and ornithology to the Queenslander. Their quality induced the trustees of the Queensland Museum in January 1882 to offer him the post of curator. He began work in February and in 1901 became director, holding office until he retired in 1905. He then filled the post of consulting specialist to the museum until 1912.

De Vis was an indefatigable writer and worker for natural science, especially in the fields of palaeontology and systematic vertebrate zoology. As Alexander Hamilton put it, de Vis 'tried to do for the Queensland fauna, what Mr. Bailey did for the flora, but under more unmanageable and difficult conditions'. Despite a small staff and limited budget, de Vis added much to the extent of the collections, their classification and display. He also built up a fine reference library and supervised the moving of the museum from the Public Library to the Exhibition Building, Bowen Park. The Annals of the Queensland Museum were commenced and attention was paid to the ethnological and biological products of New Guinea, whence his friend, Sir William MacGregor, sent great quantities of material.

Articles on birds, fish, reptiles, batrachians and marsupials, and accounts of his palaeontological explorations poured from his pen. In the half century after 1865, he published some 130 papers in various journals including the Zoologist, the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology, Memoirs of the Anthropological Society of London, the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales and those of the Royal Society of Queensland, the Annals of the Queensland Museum and the Annual Reports of the Administrator of H.M. Government in New Guinea. He had associations with the British and Australian Ornithologists Unions, the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia and exhibitions held in London in 1886 and Melbourne in 1888. He was working to the end on a comparative vocabulary of Aboriginal languages. His first wife died in 1897; at Wellington, New Zealand, on 9 September 1898 he married a widow, Katherine Elizabeth Luckle, née Coulson. He died on 30 April 1915 and was buried in the Church of England section of the Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • A. G. Hamilton, ‘Presidential Address’, Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, vol 41, 1916, p 6
  • T. H. Johnston, ‘C. W. DeVis’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland, vol 28, 1916, pp 10-17
  • G. Whitley, ‘Some Founders of Australian Fish Science’, Australian Museum Magazine, 9 (1948)
  • G. Mack, ‘The Queensland Museum, 1855-1955’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, vol 13, part 2, 1956, pp 107-24
  • Brisbane Courier, 3 May 1915
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane), 3 May 1915.

Citation details

L. A. Gilbert, 'de Vis, Charles Walter (1829–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 25 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Thickthorn

9 May, 1829
Birmingham, Warwickshire, England


30 April, 1915 (aged 85)
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.