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James Hamlyn (Jim) Willis (1910–1995)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This article was published:

James Hamlyn Willis (1910–1995), botanist, was born on 28 January 1910 at Oakleigh, Victoria, younger son of locally born Benjamin James Willis, bank clerk, and his Queensland-born wife Mary Elizabeth Giles, née James. The family lived at Yarram Yarram in Gippsland, where his father worked in the Bank of Australasia. In 1913 they moved to Stanley, Tasmania, after Benjamin was promoted to bank manager. Jim gained his early education at home and then at the local primary school. The head teacher, noticing his interest in plants, set Jim a project to collect and name the grasses found nearby. In 1924 he returned to Victoria to attend Melbourne High School, where his brother, Rupert, had been a scholar. Four years later he entered the Victorian School of Forestry at Creswick (ADipFor, 1930). Forestry offered practical expression for his precocious interest in botany.

At Creswick, Willis was befriended by Malcolm Howie (d. 1936), a wheelchair-bound, self-taught watercolourist and Methodist lay preacher. He accompanied Malcolm and his sister Mavis Eileen Howie to preaching engagements and on wildflower collecting excursions. He also became a lay preacher in the Methodist (later Uniting) Church. Appointed as a cadet in the Forests Commission, he was posted to the Ballarat region, then to Bealiba, Cockatoo, and Daylesford. On 13 October 1933 he married Mavis at the Creswick Methodist Church. Four years later he was seconded to the National Herbarium of Victoria at the (Royal) Botanic Gardens, Melbourne. In 1939 the arrangement was formalised, his appointment helping to revive the herbarium’s lapsed research program. During the early years of his employment, he studied science at the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1940). His book, Victorian Fungi, illustrated by his late brother-in-law, was published in 1941. Four years later he was appointed botanist at the herbarium, where he would remain until his retirement in January 1972. By then he was the acting director of the gardens and acting government botanist.

Willis’s duties were taxonomic and floristic: they involved classifying the herbarium’s vast plant collection and determining plant distributions. He assisted members of the public who brought in plants for identification, and corresponded with herbaria interstate and overseas. At times his work became so demanding that his research and family took second place. He undertook regular field trips, usually on foot, to collect specimens from throughout Victoria and interstate, including three months on islands of the Recherche Archipelago off the southern coast of Esperance, Western Australia (1950). In 1958 he went to London and worked for fourteen months as the Australian botanical liaison officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He used this time to visit other herbaria and establish links with their botanists.

In the late 1940s Willis had begun research for his magnum opus, A Handbook to Plants in Victoria, published in two volumes in 1962 and 1972. For this work he was awarded a doctorate by the University of Melbourne (DSc, 1974). The Handbook remained the standard reference to Victoria’s flora for three decades. A prolific writer, he co-authored three more books and published some 880 papers. He described forty-two new plant species and another twenty-two with co-authors. His manuscripts were produced in distinctive, neat, legible handwriting and he became a skilled botanical photographer.

Willis was a short (165 cm), wiry man of fair complexion, with a weather-beaten face, brown, curly hair, a prominent nose, and a strong jaw line. Although never interested in sport, he had great stamina and enjoyed gardening, walking, and cycling. Since childhood he had been a collector of objects including shells, geological specimens, stamps, and coins. An accomplished pianist, largely self-taught, he had a mellow baritone voice and customarily sang the bass solos in his church choir’s oratorios. By nature he was unassuming, gentle, thoughtful, and generous with his time. A lifelong pacifist, during World War II he had been a conscientious objector and served as a stretcher-bearer with the air-raid precautions organisation.

In retirement Willis was in demand as a public speaker. Although he was never an agitator, he advised several agencies on conservation, and assisted local activists campaigning to save natural habitats from destruction. He was appointed AM in 1995 and had been awarded the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria’s Australian natural history medallion (1960) and the research medal of the Royal Society of Victoria (1973). Survived by his wife and their three daughters and two sons, he died on 10 November 1995 at Prahran and was cremated. The Bayside City Council later established the Dr Jim Willis Reserve along the Brighton foreshore, where his flora census had helped to protect remnant native bushland. Studentships at the herbarium are named after him, as are six plants, the best known being Grevillea willisii.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Aston, Helen I. ‘Obituary: Dr James Hamlyn Willis AM.’ Muelleria : An Australian Journal of Botany 9 (1996): 1–4
  • Costermans, Leon. ‘Botanist Also a Master of Words.’ Australian, 26 December 1995, 13
  • Latreille, Anne. ‘Jim Willis, Man of Nature.’ Age (Melbourne), 25 November 1995, Extra 12
  • Muelleria: An Australian Journal of Botany. ‘James Hamlyn Willis: A Biographical Sketch.’ 3, no. 2 (1975): 69–88
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Smith, Raymond V. ‘James H. Willis—a Distinguished Botanical Career.’ Botanic Magazine 2 (Spring 1987): 27–28
  • Willis, James Hamlyn. Autobiographical notes. Records of James Hamlyn Willis, MS 367, series 29. State Botanic Collection, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Willis, James Hamlyn (Jim) (1910–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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