Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Lewis May (1861–1925)

by Ron Kershaw

This article was published:

William Lewis May (1861-1925), conchologist, was born on 18 April 1861 at Wanstead near Mount Barker, South Australia, one of six children of William May, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Cotton. His Quaker parents were capable artists and naturalists and trained their children in these fields. In 1874 the May family settled in Tasmania, establishing a farm at Sandford. William and his brother Alfred, trading as May Bros, were pioneers in the shipment of apples to England. On 2 November 1887 William married Margaret Elizabeth Greer (d.1901) at the Friends' Meeting House, Hobart. On 8 November 1904 he married Edith Ellen Lester at Ballarat, Victoria.

By the 1890s May had accumulated valuable collections of shells and knowledge which led to joint research with Professor Ralph Tate of the University of Adelaide. Their second paper, carefully illustrated by May, was the important 'Revised census of the marine mollusca of Tasmania' (1901). Mary Lodder generously made her conchological work available to Tate and May and in 1902 worked with May on the identity of J. E. Tenison-Woods's type material in Hobart. From 1900 May published twenty-nine papers, almost doubling the known Tasmanian molluscan fauna; about 160 new species were described. A significant joint dredging expedition with Charles Hedley, east of Cape Pillar, enabled eighty species to be presented to the Royal Society of Tasmania. May continued dredging in eastern and southern waters. A joint paper with Tom Iredale on 'The Misnamed Tasmanian Chitons' joined publications dealing with freshwater mollusca, Table Cape fossils and Bass Strait Island collections.

A Check-List of the Mollusca of Tasmania (Hobart, 1921) and The Illustrated Index of Tasmanian Shells (Hobart, 1923), consolidated his research. The Index, with over 1000 drawings by May, realized his wish to illustrate the known species. This unique work of great value to malacologists is the monument to his careful research and artistic ability. A genus and many species honour his name.

May was also a keen bird observer and collector of eggs. His shell collection was purchased by Sir Joseph Verco for the South Australian Museum. His paintings of native birds and plants and a fine collection of butterflies and beetles are held by his family. May was elected to the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1895 and the Linnean Society of New South Wales in 1902. He was a member of the Clarence Road Board, held office with the Sandford Hall Committee and was an active sportsman. Following his father, May was interested in local and family history and edited Two Letters Describing the Voyage of the May Family to South Australia in 1839 (Hobart, 1911). He was a devoted and active member of the Society of Friends and a governor of The Friends' School of which his father was one of the founders.

May died on 30 August 1925 in Sydney, while returning from a voyage in the Pacific, and was buried at the Friends' cemetery, Rookwood. His wife and three children by each marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Department of History, University of Tasmania, Report on the Historical Manuscripts of Tasmania, no 5 (Hob, 1960)
  • Australian Zoologist, 4 (1927), p 351
  • Nautilus, 39 (1925), p 40
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 51 (1926), no 1, p v
  • Tasmanian Naturalist, 50 (1977), p 1, 52 (1978), p 2
  • May family papers (access through Department of History, University of Tasmania)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ron Kershaw, 'May, William Lewis (1861–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 April, 1861
Mount Barker, South Australia, Australia


30 August, 1925 (aged 64)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.