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David George Stead (1877–1957)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

David George Stead (1877-1957), naturalist, was born on 6 March 1877 at St Leonards, Sydney, sixth child of English-born Samuel Leonard Stead, house-painter, and his Scottish wife Christina, née Broadfoot. Despite his mother's strictness, he had a happy childhood: the sea, the shoreline and the bush were his early loves. Having attended local public schools, at 12 he was apprenticed to a stampmaker from whom he learned the art of lettering that was his pride. David studied zoology at Sydney Technical College and in 1898 joined the Linnean Society of New South Wales. He was a compositor when he married Ellen Butters on 17 August 1901 at the Sydney registry office. After her death in 1904, he married Ada Gibbins, daughter of an oyster merchant, at Arncliffe with Anglican rites on 1 January 1907.

Appointed a scientific assistant under Harald Dannevig in the Fisheries Commission in May 1902 at an annual salary of £200, Stead took tireless interest in 'every aspect of nature' and specialized in ichthyology, but acutely felt his lack of academic qualifications all his life. He published Fishes of Australia (1906) and Edible Fishes of New South Wales (1908). In 1914-15, as a special commissioner, he investigated European and American fisheries for the government. From July 1915 to 1920 he was general manager of the State Trawlers Industrial Undertaking which satisfied his socialist leanings but was to end in his dismissal. His controversial and costly management was attacked in parliament and in Smith's Weekly. (Sir) George Allard, royal commissioner into the Public Service, appreciated Stead's scientific and practical knowledge, his drive and industry, but regretted his lack of business sense.

Tall, fair and blue-eyed, with thick hair in his youth, Stead was above all an enthusiast, a 'spellbinder', strong and forthright, if somewhat overbearing and self-opinionated at times. When faced—as he often was—with setbacks and criticism of his ideas, he would sing the Moody and Sankey hymn:

Dare to be a Daniel,
Dare to stand alone,
Dare to have a purpose true,
And dare to make it known.

He went to Malaya in 1921 as fisheries inquiry commissioner and acting director of supplies to the British government; in 1924 he attended the Pan-Pacific Food Conservation Conference in Honolulu. He investigated various methods of rabbit destruction in 1925-26: his solutions were sensible but politically unacceptable. A prolific writer and lecturer, Stead published Giants and Pigmies of the Deep and The Tree Book in 1933, The Rabbit in Australia in 1935 and Sharks and Rays of Australian Seas posthumously in 1963, besides numerous articles, papers, pamphlets and letters to the press and people in power. He pioneered radio broadcasts on wildlife topics and interested himself in the better treatment of Aborigines; outspoken against war, he was an executive-member of the State branch of the League of Nations Union and in 1936 foundation chairman of the International Peace Campaign.

His great work was as a popular scientific educator and as an advocate of conservation which aroused little enthusiasm in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1909 he had helped to found the Wild Life Preservation Society of Australia, becoming secretary then president. Stead presided over the Aquarium, Naturalists' and Geographical societies of New South Wales, the State branch of the Australian Forest League and the Town Planning Association, and was an executive-member of the Gould League of Bird Lovers and the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, an honorary member of the American Fisheries Society, a fellow of the Linnean Society of London and managing director of the Australian Whaling Co. He often wrote under the pen names 'Physalia' and 'Dinnawan', and edited Australian Wild Life, the Australian Geographer and Australian Naturalist, as well as the Shakespeare Head Press Ltd's nature series.

Delighting in children, he would wait in the street to talk to them, build little red boats as presents for them and amuse them by reciting ditties on the nicknames he gave them all. Stead died on 2 August 1957 at his Watsons Bay home and was cremated. He was survived by his third wife Thistle Yolette, née Harris (a biologist and conservationist whom he had married in his home on 30 June 1951), by three sons and two daughters of his second marriage and by the only child of his first marriage, the novelist Christina Stead. The character Sam Pollit in her novel, The Man who Loved Children (New York, 1940), is based on her childhood memories of her father. He is commemorated by the David George Stead Memorial Wildlife Research Foundation of Australia and by Mount Stead in the Blue Mountains.

Select Bibliography

  • W. S. Ramson (ed), The Australian Experience (Canb, 1974)
  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1916, 5, p 975, 1920, 1st S, 1, p 361
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1918, p 1763, 1919, pp 82, 319
  • Australian Wild Life, 3, Mar 1958
  • Wireless Weekly, 11 Sept 1931
  • Commonwealth Director of Fisheries, Department of Primary Industry, Fisheries Newsletter, 16, no 9, 1957
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 83 (1958)
  • Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, June 1958
  • Overland, no 53, Spring 1972
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Dec 1921, 22, 23 Oct 1924, 20 July 1925, 26 Mar, 14 Apr 1927, 7 Nov 1928, 7, 12 Aug, 14 Sept, 8, 10 Oct 1929, 15 Mar, 30 Nov 1933, 29 Oct 1935
  • Carruthers correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CRS A 1838 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Stead, David George (1877–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Physalia
  • Dinnawan

6 March, 1877
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


2 August, 1957 (aged 80)
Watsons Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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.