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Dr Ronald Strahan, AM
Ronald Strahan’s contribution to the Australian Museum was profound and varied. When he arrived from Taronga Zoo in 1974 to become the Museum’s first Research Fellow he almost immediately threw himself into two projects. The first was a history of the Museum to be published as part of the Museum’s sesquicentenary celebrations in 1977 as Rare and Curious Specimens. The second was the development of the Museum’s first travelling exhibition in the ‘Museum on the Road’ series, Man the Peculiar Primate.
Both projects revealed his extraordinary talents and prodigious knowledge of many areas of science and the humanities.
Ron was a scholar in the broadest sense – a zoologist with a wide knowledge of the history of zoology and a specialist in the form and function of vertebrates. He was also an exceptional and compelling lecturer, with his public lectures at the Museum often overfilling the Museum lecture theatre.
Ron graduated in zoology at the University of Western Australia in 1947 and then studied at Oxford University, followed by the universities of Hong Kong and New South Wales. As director of Taronga Zoo from 1967 until 1974, he was a pioneer in advocating zoos as cultural scientific institutions, establishing the Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo in western New South Wales. His studies of ‘jawless’ fishes (agnathans, a primitive group including lampreys and hagfishes) led to international recognition as an authority on these animals.
Ron edited and wrote much of the book Rare and Curious Specimens, a collection of essays about the Australian Museum’s long history of research, collections, education and expeditions. It documented many incidents of historical importance, not least the several conflicts between Museum directors and trustees.
The travelling exhibition Man the Peculiar Primate described the peculiar features of humans and their evolutionary relationships with other apes. The text panels, showcases and specimens were designed to be packed up for transport to various regional libraries for viewing like any regular museum exhibition. These road shows complemented other resources such as ‘Museum in a Box’ – small boxes of specimens and leaflets sent directly to schools, and still popular today – and the Museum Train which also toured regional areas.
Ron’s prodigious knowledge of zoology and history – and especially his expert familiarity of mammals, birds and other Australian fauna – led to his years of research and writing at the Museum. Of special note is his involvement with the National Photographic Index of Australian Wildlife, a project begun in 1968 at the initiative of photographer and amateur ornithologist Donald Trounson, to collect the best photographs of Australian birds (and later mammals) and preserve them for posterity.
The outcome, The Complete Book of Australian Birds, was followed by The Complete Book of Australian Mammals, which Ron edited and which included photographs and text from leading scientists documenting every known Australian mammal species at the time. He later became Executive Officer of the Index. The third edition of Australian Mammals (edited by Ronald Strahan and Steve Van Dyk) was published by New Holland Press in 2008.
Ron wrote a number of other books on mammals and also compiled a set of recordings of Australian bird song. He was also adept at witty poetry, writing verses for a number of events at the Museum, particularly commemorating the contributions of departing staff.
Ron was admitted to membership of the Order of Australia for ‘contributions to zoology and the understanding of Australia's natural heritage’ in 1994. He died in July 2010 and is survived by his second wife, the wildlife artist Pamela Conder, as well as two of his children by his first marriage to Helen Burns (Fiona and Alison), two grandchildren and one great grandchild. His son Kingsley, later known as Lee, died in 2005.
Dr Des Griffin, Director of the Australian Museum, 1976–1998 and Frank Talbot, Director of the Australian Museum 1966-1975