Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Latham (1740–1837)

by J. H. Calaby

This article was published:

John Latham (1740-1837), ornithologist, was born on 27 June 1740 at Eltham, Kent, England, son of John Latham, a surgeon. He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, studied anatomy under the radical surgeon John Hunter, and after completing his medical education at London hospitals practised medicine for many years at Dartford. After acquiring a considerable fortune he retired from practice in 1796 and settled at Romsey, Hampshire. In 1775 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and in 1796 received the degree of M.D. at Erlangen (Germany). He took a leading part in the formation of the Linnean Society of London in 1788. He was twice married, in 1763 and 1798. He died on 4 February 1837.

From early in life natural history and particularly birds were Latham's major interests and he became the leading English ornithologist of his day. The chief results of his studies were published in three works: A General Synopsis of Birds, 1-3, 1781-85, with supplements in 1787 and 1801; Index Ornithologicus, Sive Systema Ornithologiae … 1-2, 1790, with supplement in 1801; A General History of Birds, 1-10, 1821-28. The illustrations were designed, etched and coloured by Latham himself. Apart from his major works he published papers in the transactions of learned societies, and contributed the descriptions of birds in The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay … 1789.

The period of Latham's ornithological work coincided with James Cook's voyages and the first years of colonization of eastern Australia, and as a result a large number of Australian birds were included in his books. He was a friend and correspondent of all the important English naturalists and collectors and thus was able to examine practically all specimens and drawings of birds which reached England. He was particularly interested in drawings and made copies of those which he borrowed. Sir Joseph Banks lent him the drawings made by artists on all Cook's voyages. A particularly important source of illustrations of Australian birds was the 'Lambert drawings' which he borrowed from Aylmer Bourke Lambert who apparently acquired them from Surgeon-General John White. A considerable number of these appear to be copies of some of the 'Watling drawings', the work of Thomas Watling and other artists in the infant settlement at Port Jackson. Although he does not mention Watling, Latham quotes notes on the habits of birds taken from drawings in the Watling set.

The birds described in the Synopsis and the first supplement were vernacular descriptions only and no scientific names were given. Johann Friedrich Gmelin published in 1788-89 a new enlarged edition of Linnaeus's Systema Naturae … and in that work rendered Latham's descriptions into Latin and gave them scientific names, thereby gaining the credit of being the first to describe and name scientifically the birds already brought to notice by Latham. In his Index Ornithologicus and the second supplement to the Synopsis Latham provided the first published descriptions and scientific names of many Australian birds, some common and well-known examples being the emu, white cockatoo, wedge-tailed eagle, lyre-bird and magpie.

Latham was essentially a compiler and his ornithology was not of a high standard even for his day; however, he made the first contribution of any importance to Australian ornithology, and it was not surpassed until John Gould embarked on his comprehensive and systematic study several decades later.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • F. C. Sawyer, ‘Notes on Some Original Drawings of Birds used by Dr John Latham’, Journal of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History, vol 2, 1949, pp 173-80
  • E. G. Allen, ‘History of American Ornithology before Audubon’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol 41, 1951, pp 385-591.

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Citation details

J. H. Calaby, 'Latham, John (1740–1837)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 June, 1740
Eltham, Kent, England


4 February, 1837 (aged 96)
Winchester, Hampshire, England

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