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Gregory Macalister Mathews (1876–1949)

by Tess Kloot

This article was published:

Gregory Mathews, by Basil Gotto, 1929

Gregory Mathews, by Basil Gotto, 1929

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an2288548

Gregory Macalister Mathews (1876-1949), ornithologist, was born on 10 September 1876 at Merrygoen, New South Wales, second son of native-born parents Robert Hamilton Mathews, surveyor and ethnologist, and his wife Mary Sylvester, née Bartlett. Educated at Singleton Grammar School and The King's School, Parramatta, he enthusiastically collected birds' eggs. He worked for six years on a cattle-station near Charters Towers, Queensland, observing birds on droving trips and indulging his love for horses. He returned to New South Wales and became an orchardist. On 6 May 1902 at Parramatta he married a wealthy 37-year-old widow with two children, Marion Cecil Wynne (d.1938), daughter of H. C. White of Havilah, and niece of James White; they sailed for England, with Mathews, a believer in the powers of prophecy, confident that there lay his destiny.

Life in England was a continuous round of hunting, races and horse-shows until he visited the British Museum and conceived the idea of producing an exhaustive work on Australian birds. He met R. Bowdler Sharpe, keeper of the bird collection, who encouraged him and 'taught him how to work'. Once started on the huge undertaking, Mathews became fanatical. Sixteen-hour days were spent in research, writing, skin and book-collecting: he bought, exchanged or obtained by hired collectors 30,000 skins and amassed some 5000 books covering every aspect of ornithology but, 'essentially a bibliophile', he 'was not really interested in the living bird'. Correspondence sped between Australia and experts all over the world. The first volume of The Birds of Australia was published in London in 1910. Next year Tom Iredale became his secretary; in close partnership they produced a staggering amount of work until Iredale left for Australia in 1923.

In 1914 Mathews undertook a world tour, meeting ornithologists and extensively examining skins. Returning just before World War I he settled in Hampshire at Foulis Court, Fisher's Pond. Too old for enlistment, he grew vegetables, performed the 'obligations of a Squire of the Village' and continued The Birds of Australia. The twelfth and final volume appeared in 1927. His other publications covered lists of Australian, New Zealand, Lord Howe and Norfolk Island birds, numerous articles and, with Iredale, one volume of a Manual of the Birds of Australia (London, 1921). In 1912 he established the Austral Avian Record, editing it throughout its fifteen years of existence.

Mathews' place in Australian ornithology is controversial. His main interest lay in taxonomy, and originally, influenced by Sharpe, he adopted a conservative approach. His 'Handlist of the birds of Australasia' (Emu, January 1908), reflected this attitude. However he soon joined the school favouring sub-species, gaining the reputation of an arch 'splitter'. His 'Reference list to the birds of Australia' (Novitates Zoologicae, 18 January 1912), raised the number of forms from 800 to 1500! He constantly revised his taxonomy, at times inconsistently, and Australia's established ornithologists mistrusted his extremist ideas. Heated arguments raged, although with the passage of time some of his pronouncements have been accepted. In the latter stages of his work he reverted to conservatism, but by then the rest of the world had moved on.

A fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Mathews was associated with world-wide scientific bodies, received many honours and was appointed C.B.E. in 1939; he represented Australia at five international ornithological congresses. In 1939 he presented his library to Australia, and in 1940-45 supervised its housing in the National Library, Canberra; he published an autobiography, Birds and Books (Canberra, 1942). He returned to England in 1945 and died of cancer at Winchester on 27 March 1949, survived by a son. His collection of skins, sold to Lord Rothschild in the 1920s, is now in the American Museum of Natural History, New York.

Mathews was tall, bronzed, with silvery hair, blue eyes aided by a monocle, and a thin, prominent nose. He spoke rapidly in a high-pitched voice. He usually dressed as a country squire and is depicted thus in a portrait by Basil Gotto held by the National Library.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Whittell, The Literature of Australian Birds (Perth, 1954)
  • D. L. Serventy, Checklist to the Mathews Ornithological Collection (Canb, 1966)
  • J. White, The White Family of Belltrees (Syd, 1981)
  • Auk, 44, no 3, July 1927, p 435
  • Emu (Melbourne), 49, no 2, Oct 1949, p 145, 49, no 4, Apr 1950, p 257
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Sept 1966
  • D. L. Serventy, Gregory Mathews collection (Royal Australian Ornithologists Union Archives, State Library of Victoria).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Tess Kloot, 'Mathews, Gregory Macalister (1876–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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