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Hedley Herbert Finlayson (1895–1991)

by Colin Harris

This article was published:

Hedley Herbert Finlayson (1895-1991), mammalogist, was born on 19 March 1895 in Adelaide, South Australia, sixth of seven children of Ebenezer Finlayson, sharebroker, and his wife Finnetta, née Champion. Hedley attended Kyre (later Scotch) College, Unley, prior to enrolling in science at the University of Adelaide. An explosives accident in 1910 while he was a cadet in the chemical faculty injured his left hand and a more serious explosion in 1913 resulted in the loss of his left hand and right eye. Though he did not graduate, he was sufficiently well regarded to be appointed to the teaching staff of the university in 1914, working largely as a chemistry demonstrator until his retirement in 1958.

From as early as the 1920s Finlayson’s primary academic interest had shifted to Australian mammalogy. He was appointed honorary associate in Mammalia at the South Australian Museum in 1927 and its honorary curator of mammals in 1930, a post he held until 1965.

Finlayson travelled widely collecting Australian mammals, most notably in outback South Australia and the Northern Territory. In the period 1931-35 he privately financed four collecting expeditions to these regions during the height of summer over the long university break. Determined and capable, he also had the good fortune to be working at a time when many small- to medium-sized ground-dwelling desert mammals were still to be found, though much of his early success came from working with local pastoralists and Aboriginal people. When he returned to central Australia in the 1950s he found that many of the species he had collected in the 1930s had either declined or disappeared completely, including the desert rat kangaroo and lesser bilby. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Finlayson was one of the earliest advocates of the need for large conservation reserves in outback Australia.

The author of sixty-three scientific papers, the best known of which deal with the taxonomy and ecology of Australian mammals, Finlayson published his first paper in 1920 and the last in 1963; five appeared in Nature. An accomplished landscape and natural history photographer, Finlayson amassed approximately five thousand carefully annotated negatives, now housed in the Northern Territory Archives. His 1935 book, The Red Centre, a popular account of his work in Central Australia, has been reprinted eight times. Reflecting his great love of the inland deserts, it is a compelling evocation of inland Australia and its title has entered the lexicon of literature and the Australian travel industry.

For his scientific work Finlayson was awarded the Royal Society of South Australia’s Verco Medal in 1960 and, for his geographical research and writing, the John Lewis Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (South Australian Branch) in 1962.

Finlayson was a relatively tall man, strong and resourceful in the field, but he was always conscious of both his lack of formal qualifications and his physical disabilities. His private collecting, although self-funded and legitimate at the time for honorary associates and curators, led to some strains in his relationship with the South Australian Museum. Shortly before his death he arranged for much of his private mammal collection to be transferred to Alice Springs, where it is now housed in the Museum of Central Australia. His collection of meticulously registered specimens and his many published papers remain highly regarded by scientists.

Finlayson led a very private life and little is known of his close personal beliefs and values. A bachelor, he died on 29 July 1991 at North Adelaide and was cremated. His ashes were buried at the Mitcham General Cemetery in Adelaide.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘A Serious Explosion.’ 23 September 1910, 7
  • ‘Work of S. A. Scientists.’ 27 December 1932, 8
  • Chronicle (Adelaide). ‘Young Inventor’s Hand Shattered.’ 31 May 1913, 41
  • Ericksen, Ray. Review of The Red Centre, by H. H. Finlayson. Australian Book Review, September 1981, 13
  • Haynes, Roslynn. Seeking the Centre: The Australian Desert in Literature, Art and Film. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1998
  • Johnson, Ken. Personal communication with author
  • Kerle, J. A. and M. R. Fleming. ‘A History of Vertebrate Fauna Observations in Central Australia: Their Value for Conservation.’ In Exploring Central Australia: Society, the Environment and the 1894 Horn Expedition, edited by S. R. Morton and D. J. Mulvaney, 341-66. Sydney: Surrey Beatty & Sons, 1996
  • South Australian Museum Archives. AA93, Hedley Herbert Finlayson
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 1092, Papers of H. H. Finlayson
  • Tonkin, Don. A Truly Remarkable Man: The Life of H. H. Finlayson and His Adventures in Central Australia. Adelaide: Seaview Press, 2001.

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Citation details

Colin Harris, 'Finlayson, Hedley Herbert (1895–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 23 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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