Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tom Iredale (1880–1972)

by Tess Kloot

This article was published:

Tom Iredale (1880-1972), conchologist and ornithologist, was born on 24 March 1880 at Stainburn, Cumberland, England, eighth child of John Iredale, market gardener, and his wife Ann Lamb, née Wilkinson. Educated at a private school, he suffered a tubercular infection at 17 and spent a year as an invalid; thereafter his education was informal. About 1899 he was apprenticed to a pharmacist, but in 1901 sailed for New Zealand, seeking a milder climate.

Arriving at Christchurch in 1902, Iredale worked as a clerk. On 16 April 1906 at nearby Addington he married Alice Maud Atkinson; they were divorced in 1923. In his spare time Iredale observed birds with W. R. B. Oliver, who introduced him to mollusca. In 1908 with four companions he spent eleven months on Kermadec Islands and, after visiting Queensland, returned to England in 1909.

As a freelance worker in the British Museum, Iredale met Gregory Mathews. As amanuensis to Mathews, he contributed to his twelve-volume Birds of Australia (London, 1910-27). In 1913 they began preparing notes for a handbook on New Zealand birds. Articles followed and in 1921 they published the first and only volume of Manual of the Birds of Australia. Despite their long collaboration relatively little appeared under their joint names. Recent research has shown that Iredale wrote much that carried Mathews's name.

While in Mathews's employ, Iredale managed to study chitons, collect avian parasites in Hungary, assist C. Davies Sherborn with his massive Index Animalium, and serve for four years on the British Ornithologists' Union's nomenclature committee. He was also a member of the Malacological and fellow of the Zoological societies of London. Gifted with extraordinary bibliographical ability, he enjoyed astounding scientific gatherings by quoting long references from memory.

At the St Giles registry office on 8 June 1923 he married an artist Lilian Marguerite Medland (1880-1955); they had met while working at the British Museum. The same year they settled in Sydney, and, with A. F. Basset Hull, he published the first part of a Monograph of the Australian loricates. On 1 August 1924 he was appointed conchologist to the Australian Museum; he retired in 1944. He was to publish over 400 papers on shells, birds, books, naturalists, studies in ecology, zoogeography and the linking up of fossil molluscs with their living relations. He named many new genera and species of animals, and his own name is perpetuated in ornithology, conchology and ichthyology. He was a fellow of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales (1931) and its president in 1937-38. In 1959 he was awarded the (W.B.) Clarke medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales.

A controversial figure with a powerful personality, Iredale was of medium height and slight build, with brown eyes and hair; he was always affable, with a ready smile.

His wife Lilian Medland was born on 29 May 1880 at North Finchley, London, daughter of Lewis Medland, landed proprietor, and his wife Ada Emmeline, née Cranstone. Educated by a governess, she enjoyed sketching out-of-doors, mountain climbing, skiing and skating. As a girl she reared two lion cubs, induced salamanders to breathe through their lungs by gradually extending their time out of water, and kept a wood-pecker in her studio. She belonged to that band of emancipated women who by about 1910 were bold enough to smoke and to wear knickerbockers when cycling. Brown-eyed, she was of medium height with a strong face and a luxuriant sweep of auburn hair.

She left home at 16 to train as a nurse at Guy's Hospital. Between 1906 and 1911 she completed 318 monochrome plates to illustrate Charles Stonham's five volumes on The Birds of the British Islands—a remarkable achievement as an attack of diphtheria in 1907 left her almost completely deaf. Lively and independent, she continued nursing and painting. In 1911 she was invited to illustrate a revised edition of William Yarrell's A History of British Birds; it was never completed, but in 1972 the 248 paintings she had done were discovered in immaculate condition.

In Australia Lilian painted thirty species of birds for the Australian Museum, which were issued as postcards in 1925. In the 1930s she completed 53 plates depicting 883 Australian birds for Mathews. She illustrated articles in various journals and painted plates for her husband's Birds of Paradise and Bower Birds (Melbourne, 1950), Birds of New Guinea (Melbourne, 1956) and his proposed book on Australian kingfishers. Her lovely painting of the Providence petrel Pterodroma Solandri was used on a Norfolk Island stamp issued in 1961.

Lilian Iredale died of cancer at her home at Queenscliffe on 16 December 1955 and was cremated; Tom Iredale died in hospital at Harbord on 12 April 1972 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by a daughter of his first marriage and by a son and daughter of his second.

Select Bibliography

  • G. P. Whitley, ‘The life and work of Tom Iredale (1880-1972)’, Australian Zoologist, 17 (1972), pt 2, p 65, and for publications
  • Nautilus, 86 (1972), p 61
  • Emu, 49 (1950), pt 4, p 257, 73 (1973), pt 2, p 74, 76 (1976), pt 4, p 183
  • T. Iredale, notes (National Library of Australia)
  • Iredale family papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tess Kloot, 'Iredale, Tom (1880–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 March, 1880
Stainburn, Cumberland, England


12 April, 1972 (aged 92)
Harbord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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