Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

John MacGillivray (1821–1867)

by J. H. Calaby

This article was published:

John MacGillivray (1821-1867), naturalist, was born on 18 December 1821 at Aberdeen, Scotland, the eldest of twelve children of William MacGillivray (1796-1852), a famous British ornithologist and sometime Regius professor of natural history, Marischal College, Aberdeen. He studied medicine in Edinburgh but before his course was completed he was appointed by the thirteenth earl of Derby, a well-known patron of zoology, as naturalist under Joseph Beete Jukes in H.M.S. Fly commanded by Captain Francis Blackwood. MacGillivray left England in the Fly in April 1842 and from then on spent the greater part of his life in Australia and the islands of the south-west Pacific. At Sydney in 1848 he married Williamina Paton Gray, a Scottish girl by whom he had a son and two daughters.

The Fly spent over three years around the Australian coast and New Guinea, engaged on a survey of the Great Barrier Reef and Torres Strait, and arrived back in England in February 1846. MacGillivray lost no opportunity to go ashore collecting when the Fly was in port, anchored off the coast or among the islands. Some idea of his activities can be obtained from Jukes's official Narrative of the Surveying Voyage of H.M.S. Fly … (London, 1847) and his own papers in the Zoologist in 1846 recording his observations at Raine Island, Port Essington and other places.

MacGillivray again left England for Australia in December 1846 as naturalist in H.M.S. Rattlesnake, commanded by Captain Owen Stanley. Two other naturalists were on the staff, the assistant surgeon, Thomas Huxley, later to become a famous biologist, and James Fowler Wilcox. The Rattlesnake reached Hobart Town in June 1847 and after its tour of duty arrived in England in October 1850. Most of the time was spent surveying between the Queensland coast and the Great Barrier Reef, the southern coast of New Guinea and the Louisiade Archipelago. Other places around the coast, such as Bass Strait and Port Essington, were visited, and the ship returned to Sydney between cruises.

MacGillivray stayed in England for two years while he wrote the Narrative of the Voyage of H. M. S. Rattlesnake … (1852). Later in 1852 he sailed as naturalist in H.M.S. Herald, under Captain H. M. Denham, on a surveying voyage to South America and the south Pacific. Between February 1853 and early 1855, when MacGillivray left the service, the ship was in Sydney or cruising among the islands of the south-west Pacific. Few details are known of the next few years of his life. He read papers to the Horticultural Improvement Society in Sydney and appears to have been its secretary. In 1858-60 he was in the New Hebrides and returned to Sydney in 1861 after visiting Cape York. He worked for a time arranging the shell collection of Dr James C. Cox, a well-known conchologist. In 1862 and 1864 he published articles in Sydney newspapers.

In 1864 he settled at Grafton, an area noted for the richness of its fauna, and collected natural history specimens in a business partnership with J. F. Wilcox. About the end of 1866 he returned to Sydney and was again engaged by Dr Cox to help in preparing a monograph on Australian land shells. He was planning an expedition to Cape York when, at Sydney on 6 June 1867, he died suddenly of a heart attack, probably aggravated by an asthmatic condition. Other members of his family also migrated to Australia, notably Dr Paul Howard MacGillivray of Bendigo, Victoria, distinguished amateur naturalist specializing in the Bryozoa.

MacGillivray made large collections of specimens of all kinds of animals, especially birds and mollusc shells, and plants, which are still housed in the British Museum (Natural History), Kew Herbarium and other museums in England and Australia. Among his collections were the type specimens of many species described by John Gould, George Bentham and others. His zeal and energy as a field worker were unsurpassed and it is obvious that he enjoyed collecting and observing in the field above all else. He had a remarkable facility for gaining the confidence of native peoples and took a great interest in them and collected vocabularies. His published work, notebooks, and the few surviving letters show him as a critical and intelligent observer and demonstrate an excellent knowledge of systematic zoology and animal distribution. Except for the Rattlesnake narrative his published work is essentially trivial, and it is surprising that he did not publish more substantial zoological papers and describe some of the new species which he discovered. Huxley found him an amiable companion on the Rattlesnake but later developed almost a contempt for him. Huxley's letters reveal his impatience with MacGillivray's dilatoriness in completing the narrative, which appears also to have been the despair of the publisher. An obituary notice records that MacGillivray's appointment in the Herald was terminated because of his intemperate habits, and there is a tradition among Australian naturalists that his career 'ended on a low rung'. His lapses have largely been forgotten, however, because of his great contributions to Australian natural history.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Huxley (ed), T. H. Huxley's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake (Lond, 1935)
  • T. Iredale, ‘The Last Letters of John MacGillivray’, Australian Zoologist, vol 9, 1937, pp 40-63
  • J. H. Maiden, ‘Records of Queensland Botanists’, Report of the Meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, 12th meeting, 1910, pp 373-83.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. H. Calaby, 'MacGillivray, John (1821–1867)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 24 June 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

John MacGillivray, n.d.

John MacGillivray, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 110106690

Life Summary [details]


18 December, 1821
Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


6 June, 1867 (aged 45)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.