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Gustavus Athol Waterhouse (1877–1950)

by J. W. Evans

This article was published:

Gustavus Athol Waterhouse (1877-1950), by unknown photographer

Gustavus Athol Waterhouse (1877-1950), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12107347-8

Gustavus Athol Waterhouse (1877-1950), entomologist, was born on 21 May 1877 at Waverley, Sydney, eldest of five children of Gustavus John Waterhouse, a Tasmanian-born mercantile clerk and later a Sydney Municipal Council alderman, and his native-born wife Mary Jane, daughter of Ebenezer Vickery. He grew up in a family interested in scientific pursuits: his father collected Pacific Island artefacts and his mother was a notable shell-collector. Athol was educated at Waverley Public School and went with his brothers, Eben Gowrie Waterhouse and Leslie Vickery Waterhouse, to Sydney Grammar School where he spent lunch hours browsing in the Australian Museum next door.

In 1896 Waterhouse enrolled at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1899; B.E. [mining], 1900; D.Sc., 1924). Graduating with first-class honours in geology and palaeontology in 1899, he was influenced by Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David and studied volcanic dykes in the Triassic rocks around Sydney. From 1900 to 1926 Waterhouse was assistant assayer at the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint. At Waverley on 12 September 1902 he married Beatrice Talbot Stretton with Methodist forms. They lived at Killara where Athol cultivated native plants, bred butterflies and carried out hybridization experiments. Later he took his family for holidays in a cottage at (Royal) National Park where he collected insects. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he volunteered, but was rejected for active service with the Australian Imperial Force; he then organized and drilled the Roseville Rifle Club.

Having joined the Field Naturalists' Society, Waterhouse won a prize for a collection of local sea shells in 1893; he had helped to revive the society in 1900 and was president (1906-07 and 1914-15). A member of the local Linnean Society from 1897, he was a councillor (1912-43) and president (1921-23); as treasurer (1926-28 and 1930-43), he placed the society's finances on a secure footing. He was president of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales (1924-25), a member of the Australian National Research Council (1926-51), honorary secretary of the local Royal Society (1923-25) and general treasurer of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (1934-46), presiding over section D (zoology) at the Auckland meeting in 1937. It was due to his suggestion that Science House was built as a permanent home for Sydney's scientific societies.

Meanwhile Waterhouse added to the butterfly collection he had begun in 1893, while continuing his observations and taxonomic studies. In 1903 he had prepared a catalogue of Australian butterflies; in 1914, with George Lyell, he published Butterflies of Australia; in 1932 he produced What Butterfly is That?, illustrated by Neville Cayley. In addition, Waterhouse wrote over fifty scientific papers. He was honorary entomologist for the Australian Museum from 1919 and a trustee (1926-47); when president in 1930, he presented his collection and library to the museum.

Waterhouse was a meticulous and dedicated worker whose taxonomic studies were detailed and thorough. In 1924 his work on the hybridization of sub-species belonging to the genus Tisiphone earned him his doctorate and the university medal. In 1928-29, during its formative years, he served as curator and executive officer of the division of economic entomology of the Commonwealth Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. According to (Sir) George Julius, Waterhouse resigned because of 'his Chief and Canberra'.

Accompanied by his wife, Waterhouse visited England in 1936. He worked in the British Museum (Natural History) and studied Lord Rothschild's collection at Tring and the Meyrick collection at Marlborough. A fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, London, he was elected a special life member in 1943.

A kindly man, learned in many fields, Waterhouse took a deep interest in ancient history and philately, and encouraged amateur collectors. Dapper, with deep-set eyes and a bushy moustache, he was a director of E. Vickery and Sons Ltd and Coal Cliff Collieries Ltd (chairman 1938-43). Among his later activities, he spent months identifying butterflies which had been stolen from the Australian and other museums to enable them to be restored to their rightful owners. Survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons, he died at Pymble on 29 July 1950 and was cremated with Anglican rites. A third son had been killed on active service in New Guinea in World War II.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Museum Magazine, 5, 1935, p 372, 10, no 3, 1950, p 78
  • Linnean Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 78, no 14, 1953
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July 1968
  • G. A. Waterhouse staff file and executive correspondence (CSIRO Archives, Canberra).

Citation details

J. W. Evans, 'Waterhouse, Gustavus Athol (1877–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 May 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

Gustavus Athol Waterhouse (1877-1950), by unknown photographer

Gustavus Athol Waterhouse (1877-1950), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12107347-8

Life Summary [details]


21 May, 1877
Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


29 July, 1950 (aged 73)
Pymble, 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.