Courtenay Smithers, 1925-2011

Entomologist Courtenay Smithers, who died in 2011, leaves a legacy of international recognition for Australian entomology 

Courtenay Smithers

Unknown © Australian Museum

Courtenay Smithers was born in Pretoria, South Africa in 1925. Following his father’s death in 1934, his family migrated to England in 1938. His early career choice was football (soccer), but his schooling and the impact of World War 2 turned his interests to natural history, and he spent much of his spare time watching birds and collecting insects.

He served in the British Army from 1943, arriving in France on D-day, only to be taken prisoner and held captive until May of the following year. Following his discharge from the Army in 1947, he returned to South Africa to study agriculture at the University of Pretoria. He majored in entomology and botany, then moved to Rhodes University to further his studies in entomology, eventually completing a Masters degree in the early 1950s.

Bark lice

Putting further study on hold, he decided to enter the workforce and had no problem finding his first entomological job with the Rhodesian Government researching the tsetse fly problem. He worked in the remote area of the Sebungwe, then at the Wattle Research Institute, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, before returning to Rhodesia to join the Department of Research and Specialist Services.

It was here that he developed an interest in the insect order Psocoptera (commonly called bark lice). These insects are mostly unknown to the general public, with the exception of a few domestic pests such as book lice (which are atypical of most species). Hundreds of species occur in natural habitats and most of them were completely unknown to science. It was in Rhodesia that he met his future wife, Smila, and the two of them became expert collectors of bark lice, with Courtenay developing a strong taxonomic knowledge of the group.

To Australia

While working in Rhodesia, Courtenay applied for jobs in Australia, receiving an offer from the Australian Museum. The Museum’s Curator of Insects, Anthony Musgrave, was planning to retire but passed away prematurely, in June 1959, while Courtenay’s job offer was in the mail. Arriving in Australia with Smila the following year, Courtenay took up the post of Curator of Insects, which at that stage also included the curation of spiders, centipedes and scorpions – requiring a period of rapid learning about Sydney funnel-web spiders among others.

 The early 1960s were good years for the Australian Museum as there was a push to improve the collection storage and facilities in the institution. One of Courtenay’s first innovations was to develop a design for modular cabinets that allowed workers to move specimens freely around the collection without risking damage to the fragile dry insects. These cabinets, housed in new storage areas, are still in use today.

Legacy

Courtenay’s research also thrived during this period, and he spent much time doing extensive field work throughout Australia to develop the collection in his research areas. One of his early trips was an arduous three-month expedition to Cape York and surrounds. His fascination with bark lice, begun in Rhodesia, continued. Most of the Australian fauna of these insects was at the time unknown, and Courtenay’s taxonomy of them encompassed the fauna from other parts of the Southern Hemisphere.

Through such work, he developed an understanding of the links between the fauna of South Africa and South America, and how Australia’s unique fauna had evolved. He encouraged a solid exchange and loans program of specimens with other researchers and institutions worldwide, and part of his legacy is that the Australian Museum now has the best developed bark louse collection in the Southern Hemisphere, and certainly one of the best in the world.

Public engagement

Courtenay maintained that a strong connection between the public and Museum scientists was important, both for obtaining useful information and to promote wider understanding of the role of natural history museums. Courtenay was always approachable, and his broad knowledge and communication skills no doubt influenced many keen natural historians. To cite one example, he co-authored Australian Insects in Colour (1972) with photographer Anthony Healy. His commitment to maintaining communication with the public remains a crucial part of the Museum’s practice today.

He also held a strong interest in the conservation of biodiversity and was pivotal in helping to establish a national park on Norfolk Island. In 1972 he and Smila purchased 500 acres near Singleton, NSW, to develop as a wildlife refuge.

His research into the migration patterns of Wanderer butterflies was another project that attracted public attention. Courtney initiated a program where volunteers tagged the butterflies, and contributors in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria recaptured the tagged butterflies and sent back specimens and data on butterfly movements. Many people from non-science backgrounds found themselves engaging in the biology and ecology of insects through this project.

Australia on the map

The Museum’s Director in the 1960s, John Evans, another prominent entomologist, encouraged Courtenay to attend the International Congress of Entomologists held in 1964 (London) and 1968 (Moscow). Courtenay was then appointed as organising secretary for the hosting of this congress in Australia, held in Canberra in 1972, helping to put the role of entomologists in Australia and the Australian Museum well and truly into the spotlight.

But it is doubtful that the International Congress would have made it to Australia had there been no national entomological society. When he arrived in Australia, Courtenay saw a disparate set of state societies catering for both professional entomologists and amateur enthusiasts, and he thought it odd that there was no national forum, given the quality and quantity of research being produced.

At the 1961 meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) in Sydney, Courtenay, with permission from the organisers, placed a small notice calling a meeting to discuss the possibility of forming a national society. It generated much interest and eventually the Queensland Entomological Society and ANZAAS took up the baton, with the Australian Entomological Society becoming a reality two years later. Courtenay served as President of the society for two consecutive years and was an active member of several other professional societies. In recognition of his efforts, he was granted honorary life membership to the Australian Entomological Society (1983) and Entomological Society of New South Wales (1984).

Working retirement

With typical enthusiasm, Courtenay took on the role of Deputy Director at the Museum in 1967 while running the Entomology Department, acting as Secretary for the International Congress Organising Committee and completing his doctorial thesis. He was awarded a PhD from Rhodes University in 1970 for his world revision of the higher classification of the bark lice. Stepping aside from the Deputy Director position in 1970, he continued as Principal Curator at the Museum until his retirement in 1985.

Courtenay never considered that retirement had anything to do with ceasing to research, and he continued researching and publishing on bark lice, scorpion flies, butterflies and lacewings until shortly before his death this year. Among many notable publications in entomology, he co-authored Psocoptera (Insecta): World Catalogue and Bibliography and wrote chapters on Zoraptera and Psocoptera for the landmark CSIRO publication Insects of Australia. He was author or co-author of more than 280 articles, books and chapters in books, and his last publication on beekeeping is still in press, having been accepted by the publisher literally days before he passed away.

Outside of his contributions to the knowledge of insects, Courtenay was a friend and mentor to many, and a gentle person who will be greatly missed, not just by the entomological community, but by many interested in the world of natural history. He is survived by his wife Smila and sons Graeme and Hartley.

Dr David Britton, Collection Manager, Entomology, Australian Museum


Brendan Atkins , Publications Coordinator
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