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Oscar Werner Tiegs (1897–1956)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published:

Oscar Werner Tiegs (1897-1956), professor of zoology, was born on 12 March 1897 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, only son and eldest child of Otto Theodor Carl Tiegs, a Prussian-born merchant, and his wife Helene Caroline Ottilie, née Meyer, who came from Hanover. Sent to Brisbane Grammar School, Oscar gained a scholarship to the University of Queensland (B.Sc., 1919; M.Sc., 1921) and specialized in biology. In 1920-21 he held a Walter and Eliza Hall fellowship in economic biology. He joined scientists studying the control of the blowfly and prickly pear, and took part in the campaign to eradicate hookworm.

Accompanying Professor T. H. Johnston to the University of Adelaide in 1922, Tiegs helped to establish the new department of zoology and acted as head in Johnston's absence that year. He also completed a thesis 'on the histology of metamorphosis of a Chalcid wasp, Nasonia', for which he was awarded a D.Sc. (1922) at the age of 25. The observations he made in the course of this work formed the foundation of most of his later research.

In 1925 Tiegs was appointed to a lectureship in the zoology department under Professor W. E. Agar at the University of Melbourne. At the Presbyterian Church, Hawthorn, on 14 August 1926 he married Ethel Mary Hamilton, a telephonist. He won the university's David Syme research prize in 1928. With the aid of a Rockefeller travelling fellowship, he spent a year at the universities of Cambridge, England, and Utrecht, the Netherlands, before returning to Melbourne. He was promoted to associate-professor in 1931 and professor of zoology in 1948.

Fascinated by insects since his childhood, Tiegs was an outstanding morphologist who devoted a lifetime to meticulous microscopic observation of invertebrates, principally insects and myriapods. His investigations ranged from 'physiological analysis of nervous and muscular action to studies in classical invertebrate embryology comparable to the very best work of the last century'. He illustrated his papers with beautiful diagrams. The microscopical examinations he made of the structure of muscle fibre and the nature of the nerve connections within it created a base upon which others could build. His findings on the embryology of insects and myriapods led to the division of the phylum Arthropoda into two distinct parts: one comprising the insects, myriapods, and the genus Peripatus; the other consisting of the Trilobites, Crustacea and arachnids. Shortly before his death he completed a comprehensive review of arthropod evolution which his colleagues prepared for publication.

Tiegs was a master of technique, with a 'shrewd perception of relationships in multitudinous detail'. He was elected a fellow (1944) of the Royal Society, London, and a foundation fellow (1954) of the Australian Academy of Science. In 1956 he was awarded the (W. B.) Clarke medal by the Royal Society of New South Wales. He travelled overseas for a second time, in 1954, to consult with his peers, few of whom had both the skill and the time to address the fundamental problems that absorbed him. Significant as his contribution was to zoology, his geographical isolation and his own diffidence probably prevented him from realizing his maximum potential.

Although Tiegs served as dean of the faculty of science in 1950-52, he much preferred the laboratory, the departmental museum—which he extended and improved—and the lecture theatre to the committee-room. His lectures, given mostly to first-year students, were 'models of presentation and clarity' that drew on his easy command of English and 'natural artistic ability'. To his staff he offered the freedom and encouragement that nurtured world-class research. A man for whom the line between work and recreation was blurred, he often took the classes of a staff-member on leave so as to lighten the burden on his colleagues.

Slightly built, with a laugh 'appropriate to a more robust physique', 'Sandy' Tiegs was a modest, warm and unassuming man whose friendships were deep and lasting. He was a shrewd judge of character and refreshingly direct in his dealings. Ethel shared his interests in art, literature and music. Suffering from aortic stenosis, he died of a coronary occlusion on 5 November 1956 in his home at Hawthorn and was cremated with Methodist forms. His wife survived him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of Royal Society, vol 3, 1957, p 247
  • Australian Journal of Science, vol 19, no 4, 21 Feb 1957, p 151
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, vol 13, no 1, 11 Apr 1957
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 Mar 1944
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 June 1947, 6 Apr 1956
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1956.

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Tiegs, Oscar Werner (1897–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


12 March, 1897
Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


5 November, 1956 (aged 59)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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