Gilbert Percy Whitley
A life time’s work: 500 papers, 5 books, 37,000 fish specimens collected and 320 new species identified.
Career at the Australian Museum
Gilbert Whitley was born on 9th June 1903 at Swaything, Southampton England to his father Percy Nathan Whitley and mother Clara Minnie nee Moass. Gilbert was the first of three children including his two sisters Vera and Pamela. He began his education at King Edward VI School and then Osbourne House. When Gilbert was 17 his entire family migrated to Sydney, Australia. A year later in 1922 Gilbert Whitley began a cadetship with the Australian Museum working under Allan McCulloch. While working at the Australian museum Whitely complimented his work with studies in Zoology at both Sydney Technical College ( 1922) and Sydney University (1924). His first published paper was “ The Praying Mantis” for the Australian Museum magazine in 1923. He worked hard at his profession and moved on to become McCulloch’s assistant. While in this position Whitley was often left in charge of the department when McCulloch was absent due to field studies and later due to illness. When McCulloch died on 2nd October 1925 Whitley was appointed to replace him as the ichthyologist. He continued to serve the Australian Museum in this position for 53 years till he retired in 1964. On his retirement he donated 300 books and approximately 3,000 reprints. He was known to have considered his retirement as an “insignificant interruption to his studies”, reflecting his dedication to his chosen profession, by considering it more than just a job but a lifelong passion.
This passion for science and academic research was demonstrated throughout his career. While at the Australian museum he published nearly 500 papers and 5 books. He worked extensively making over 80 trips to collect specimens and information. Over the lifetime of his career he identified, tagged and registered over 37,000 specimens. This included the 320 new species discovered by Whitley. He was also known to extend his academic eye beyond science and endeavoured to research and write under an historical perspective. The Australian Museum Trust minutes have recorded regularly receiving reports from Whitley even when on leave further demonstrating his dedication to the field. He specialised in researching fish species of Australia, pacific and New Guinea and spent much of his research; compiling information about the species Piscium but unfortunately this work never was at a satisfactory point of completion for publication. It has been said that Whitley felt his primary purpose for writing was to “place information in the literature for others to work from and eventually to publish a comprehensive work on Australian Fishes”. Although, his methodology and tendencies to use older publications and theories resulted in criticism, his work was informed and comprehensive as he had studied almost all aspects of Australian Fishes including environment, taxonomy, zoogeography and ecology.
Scientific Involvement and Contribution
He accompanied his career with involvement with external professional bodies including being on various trusts and boards of scientific organizations and winning numerous awards for his contribution to science. He was president of the Royal Zoological Society of New South wales at three separate times ( 1940-41; 1959-60; 1973-74) as well as being president of the Linnaean Society of New South Wales from 1963-1964. He also was on the council for the Royal Australian Historical Society, the Anthropological Society of New South Wales , Great Barrier Reef Committee and the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science. Just to add to his already vast involvement in the academic and scientific world he was also awarded The Natural History Medallion by the Field Naturalist Club of Victoria in 1967 and the Clarke Medal by the Royal society of New South wales in 1970, demonstrating how his commitment to the field did not end at retirement but continued on. He then followed this up by reinstating his original intention of sharing scientific information through publications by funding the Whitley award through the Zoological Society. This achievement would be awarded to “outstanding publications containing significant information on Australasian fauna.”
His contributions did not just stop at the shores of Australia. In 1941 he enlisted to join the air force (RAAF) but was rejected entry based on the grounds that the C.S.I.R ( Now CSIRO) requested his assistance in increasing productivity from the fisheries. This request was honoured as it was seen that Whitley would be able to contribute better to the war effort in this area than as a pilot. It is during this work that the most remembered and iconic photograph was recorded of Whitely with his sleeves rolled up, working intently on a specimen under a microscope. He completed his service with this department and returned to the museum in 1946. Once again in 1948 the CSIR requested Whitley to spend a further 3 months working in New Guinea leading investigations in to its marine life. This absence from the museum was granted based on scientific benefits to the museum. Whitely was also known to have assisted in a variety of international expeditions including both Danish Galathea Expeditions in 1929 and 1951. As a result of this, in 1956 he was awarded the Silver medallion by His majesty, the King of Denmark “ in recognition of the services he rendered to the Danish Galathea Expedition” while it was in Australia in 1951.
Throughout his life, Whitley was known as an enthusiastic and outgoing man with a strong sense of humour and wit. He is known to continually embark on collecting expeditions with his friends Tom Ireland and Anthony Musgrave. He enjoyed foreign travel and is been recorded as to making 80 trips during his life time. He was renowned for his registration skills including identification and tagging Whitley also extended his knowledge of registration with studies in archival skills through a summer course at Sydney University in 1957. It is said by Prow that Whitley may have also filled an unpaid position of archivist to the Australian museum but this is not recognised in the Trust minutes apart from the course that the Museum paid for him to attend.
He had a strong friendship with Melbourne Ward also a naturalist. Murray and Roach state that Whitley through this friendship may have been responsible to inspiring Ward to become a major donor to the Australian museum. Whitley’s passion for historical research, lead to him writing a comprehensive two volume edition in the history of the Australian Museum. Unfortunately the board did not give permission for the extensive work to be published.
Whitely was also keen on the art scene and is reported to have frequently attended art exhibitions, concerts and theatres. He played the piano as a past time when he wasn’t immersed in his research.
Whitley's well-known wit, is perfectly displayed through “Song of the Ichthyologist” , in which he describes his work through the following line “Although It surely wasn’t Gilbert’s ‘dearest wish’, he’s been appointed nursemaid to a lot of stinking fish.”
Gilbert Percy Whitley died on the 18th July 1975 at his home in Mosman from a heart condition. He was cremated at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium.
Maree Murray, John Roach, “Whitley, Gilbert Percy (1903-1975)’ Australian Dictionary of Biographies, Volume 16, Melbourne University press, 2002, pp. 542-543
Prow, J “ Citations: The Clarke Medal for 1970 “ Royal Society of NSW Vol 104 1971
R.S “Gilbert Percy Whitley, F.R.Z.S”., 1903-1975, Museum Newssheet, Vol. 10 No.1 July 23rd 1975
Editorial Notes and News “ Gilbert P. Whitley 1903-1975” Copeia Official publication of the American Society of Ichthyologists and herpetologists No. 4 1975. Pp.792-793
Australian Museum Trust Minutes: Vol 10p.285, 372, 376,
Vol 11 pp., 123,
Vol 12 pp. 114,
Vol 13 pp. 26, 89, 92;
Vol 14 pp. 17;
Vol 15. 85, 99;
Vol 16 pp. 24,29;
Vol 18 pp. 46, 67;
Vol. 21 pp.7
Vol. 44 pp. 21;
Vol 25 pp. 50