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Allan Riverstone McCulloch (1885–1925)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

Allan Riverstone McCulloch (1885-1925), ichthyologist and field naturalist, was born on 20 June 1885 at Concord, Sydney, son of Herbert Riverstone McCulloch, barrister, and his wife Ella Maude, sister of Alfred Backhouse, both Australian born. At 13 he joined the Australian Museum, Sydney, as an unpaid volunteer and on 1 July 1901 became mechanical assistant to E. R. Waite who introduced him to systematic ichthyology and with Charles Hedley encouraged his obvious artistic talent. He later studied drawing under Julian Ashton. On 1 July 1906 he was appointed a scientific assistant and in October accompanied William Haswell in the Woy Woy carrying out dredging operations thirty-five miles (56 km) off Port Jackson. His paper on the fishes and crustaceans found at 800 fathoms was the first of many in the Records of the Australian Museum and other scientific journals. On Waite's departure in 1906 he was appointed in charge of vertebrates.

At first interested in decapod crustacea, on which he became a recognized authority, McCulloch soon turned his attention to the formidable task of ordering the Australian fish fauna, the nomenclature of which, owing to much careless earlier work, was in a disorganized state. In this painstaking work he described many new species but the unravelling of a difficult piece of synonymy always gave him acute pleasure. In 1908 he published in the Records the first of an eight-part series, 'Studies in Australian fishes', and in 1911 and 1914-16 completed extensive reports on fishes obtained around the Australian coast by Harald Dannevig in the ill-fated fisheries' investigation ship, Endeavour. In 1919 he began publishing his most important work, 'Check-list of the fish and fish-like animals of New South Wales', in the Australian Zoologist, which was later issued separately as Australian Zoological Handbook No 1 (Sydney, 1922). He also contributed numerous entries on Australian fishes for the Australian Encyclopaedia (Sydney, 1925-26).

As an ardent field naturalist McCulloch carried out work on the whole east coast of Australia, including several expeditions to the Great Barrier Reef and various Pacific islands; in 1922 with Frank Hurley he undertook an adventurous journey into Papua-New Guinea. Not physically robust (though he had succeeded in finally joining the Australian Imperial Force in September 1918), he worked indefatigably, often far into the night; lack of recreation seriously undermined his health physically and mentally. Unable to resist his 'naturalists' paradise', he spent much time recuperating from ill health on Lord Howe Island.

Granted a year's sick leave, McCulloch went to Hawaii in mid-1925 where he conferred with fishery specialists and was involved in planning a fisheries conference of the Pan-Pacific Union. He was found dead in his room at the Colonial Hotel, Honolulu, on 1 September 1925 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. His ashes were interred in a tall granite column on Flagstaff Hill on his beloved Lord Howe Island. He was unmarried.

McCulloch was of a retiring disposition, but a genial nature underlay his reticence. He was an expert photographer and cinematographer, an accomplished musician and excellent lecturer. A consummate artist, apart from illustrating his own papers and some of the illustrations in George Lyell's and Gustavus Athol Waterhouse's Butterflies of Australia (Sydney, 1914), his pencil and brush were always at the disposal of his junior and less gifted colleagues. He was prominent in training the younger members of the zoological staff and never failed them in help and advice. He was a council-member of the Linnean and Royal Zoological societies of New South Wales, and edited the latter's journal, the Australian Zoologist, for some years.

The noted American ichthyologist David Starr Jordan regarded McCulloch as 'one of the most accurate workers in systematic ichthyology' and though he won similar praise from his contemporaries, history's verdict is less enthusiastic. According to Ronald Strahan some of his efforts were misdirected: 'Like most self-taught naturalists, he was a “species-splitter” with an inordinate respect for the written word', and rather than let sleeping dogs lie, 'would upset accepted nomenclature by resurrecting obscure names'.

In 1929-30 Check-List of Fishes Recorded from Australia was prepared and edited from material left by McCulloch by his successor Gilbert Whitley and published as Memoir 5 of the Australian Museum.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Musgrave, Bibliography of Australian Entomology 1775-1930 (Syd, 1932)
  • R. Strahan (ed), Rare and Curious Specimens (Syd, 1979)
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 51 (1926), p vi
  • Australian Zoologist, 4 Apr 1926, p 227
  • Australian Museum, Records, 15 (1926-27), p 141, and for publications
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Sept, 9 Oct 1925.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'McCulloch, Allan Riverstone (1885–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 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

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