Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Roy Kinghorn (1891–1983)

by Rose Docker

This article was published:

James Roy Kinghorn (1891-1983), zoologist, museum curator and broadcaster, was born on 12 October 1891 at Richmond, New South Wales, second of three children of a Scottish-born Presbyterian minister James Kinghorn and his wife (Bertha) Ethel, née Campbell, born in Sydney. Roy attended All Saints’ College, Bathurst, and Sydney Church of England Grammar School. In 1907 he joined the Australian Museum in Sydney as a cadet, working mainly on crustaceans. He attended zoology lectures at the University of Sydney and studied part time at the Sydney Technical College, but after he failed a college examination, his position as cadet was reviewed and he was appointed a zoologist’s clerk. In 1914 he resigned in anticipation of becoming a zoological clerk for the Commonwealth Fisheries’ investigation ship Endeavour but it was lost at sea.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 21 June 1915, Kinghorn served with the Dental Corps in Egypt and on Lemnos (1915-16) and for a few weeks (November-December 1917) on the Western Front as a driver with the artillery before an accidental injury to his knee caused him to be repatriated and discharged on 23 July 1918. He married Winifred Mance on 12 November 1921 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney.

On his return to the Australian Museum in 1918 Kinghorn had been appointed zoologist in charge of reptiles and amphibians; in 1921 birds were added. Despite later admitting that he had never liked the species, he published Snakes of Australia (1929). He also wrote herpetological and ornithological papers focusing on Australia, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands for scientific publications and natural history articles for magazines and newspapers. Handsome, versatile and personable, he educated the public, including children, about science by giving lectures for the museum and throughout the State. He was a corresponding member (1923) of the Zoological Society of London and was awarded (1935) the diploma of the Museums’ Association of Great Britain. A member of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia and a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, he served as president (1927-28, 1950-56) of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales.

Under a Carnegie Corporation of New York grant, Kinghorn visited (1937-38) museums in the United States of America, Britain and Europe. On appointment as assistant to the director of the Australian Museum in 1941, he declared: `Museums are not morgues and should expand along modern lines’. In World War II he assisted with army recruiting and while serving in the Volunteer Defence Corps, lectured soldiers on camouflage techniques. He was commissioned as a lieutenant. With Charles Kellaway he wrote The Dangerous Snakes of the South-West Pacific Area (1943).

In 1956, almost fifty years after he first joined the museum, Kinghorn retired. For four years he appeared in a children’s program on Channel 7 television. He then worked (1961-71) with the Australian Broadcasting Commission, for which he had given school programs from the 1930s; one of his roles was Linnaeus on the `Argonauts’. Predeceased (1977) by his wife, and childless, he died on 4 March 1983 at Concord and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Strahan, Rare and Curious Specimens (1979)
  • Australian Museum Magazine, vol 12, no 4, 1956, p 125
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Apr 1935, p 15, 13 Oct 1956, p 4
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 15 Feb 1941, p 2
  • B2455, Kinghorn James Roy, B884, N447506, ST3624/1, J R Kinghorn (National Archives of Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with J. R. Kinghorn (transcript, 1977, National Library of Australia)
  • Australian Museum archives, Sydney
  • private information.

Citation details

Rose Docker, 'Kinghorn, James Roy (1891–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 October, 1891
Richmond, New South Wales, Australia


4 March, 1983 (aged 91)
Concord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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