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.

Thomas Steel (1858–1925)

by H. G. Holland and J. R. Simons

This article was published:

Thomas Steel (1858-1925), industrial chemist and naturalist, was born on 8 September 1858 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of William Steel, timber merchant, and his wife Marion Currie, née Kyle. The family moved to Greenock, Renfrewshire, where Thomas attended the academy. From about 1874 he acquired some knowledge of chemistry in the laboratory of Patterson & Ogilvie, public analysts, and from about 1876 with J. Walker & Co., sugar refiners.

Recruited by the Colonial Sugar Refining Co., Steel migrated to Sydney in 1882. He worked as a laboratory chemist in their sugar-mills at Murwillumbah (1882-84) and Nausori, Fiji (1885-87), and in all three of the company's refineries at Auckland, New Zealand, Pyrmont, Sydney, and Yarraville, Melbourne. On a visit to Greenock he married Mary Sinclair Boag at the White Hart Hotel on 18 August 1892 with Church of Scotland forms. Under T. U. Walton he was a chemist at the company's head office in Sydney from 1892 until he retired in 1918. A fellow of the Chemical Society, London, he was an active member (chairman 1910-11) of the Sydney section of the Society of Chemical Industry.

From boyhood Steel was interested in natural history. Throughout his life he engaged in field-work, giving modest and generous service to other naturalists. A fellow of the Linnean Society of London from 1897, he was a councillor of the Linnean Society of New South Wales (1897-1925) and president in 1905-07; he was also president of the Field Naturalists' Club (later Society) in 1903-04 and edited its journal, the Australian Naturalist, in 1911-25. He corresponded for many years with Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, a fellow-member of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria.

Steel's significant contribution to Australian biology related to two very inconspicuous groups of fauna: the Onycophora and the Turbellaria. In two papers in 1896-97 on the onychophoran genus, Peripatus, he demonstrated that the slime threads characteristically produced by the creatures were a food snare as well as a defence mechanism; furthermore, he showed that the geographical distribution of the egg-laying forms extended much farther south than previously thought. The key reference on this subject remains his definitive article in the Australian Encyclopaedia (1925). His main work on turbellarians comprised four papers (1897-1901) of taxonomic importance in which he described and categorized sixteen distinct groups of the creatures. He made many donations to the Australian Museum, Sydney.

Steel died of heart disease at his Killara home on 17 August 1925 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Northern Suburbs cemetery. He was survived by his wife and three sons of whom the two eldest had served with the Australian Imperial Force.

Select Bibliography

  • A. B. Walkom, The Linnean Society of New South Wales (Syd, 1925)
  • A. Musgrave, Bibliography of Australian Entomology 1775-1930 (Syd, 1932), p 304
  • A. G. Lowndes (ed), South Pacific Enterprise (Syd, 1956)
  • Australian Museum Magazine, 2, no 8, 1925, p 276
  • Australian Naturalist, 5, no 16, 1925, p 255
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 51, no 1, 1926, p vii
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Aug 1925
  • W. B. Spencer papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Mus Corres/S/9/100/1925 (Australia Museum Archives, Sydney)
  • CSR Co. staff records and correspondence (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

H. G. Holland and J. R. Simons, 'Steel, Thomas (1858–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 July 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]


8 September, 1858
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


17 August, 1925 (aged 66)
Killara, 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.

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.