Walter Baldwin Spencer bigraphy, stories - British-Australian biologist

Walter Baldwin Spencer : biography

23 June 1860 - 14 July 1929

Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer KCMG (23 June 1860 – 14 July 1929) was an English-Australian biologist and anthropologist.

Life and career

Baldwin was born in Stretford, Lancashire. His father, Reuben Spencer, who had come from Derbyshire in his youth, obtained a position with Rylands and Sons, cotton manufacturers, and rose to be chairman of its board of directors when Rylands became a company. Baldwin was educated at Old Trafford) school, and on leaving entered the Manchester School of Art. He stayed only one year but never forgot his training in drawing. After leaving the school of arts Spencer went to Owens College and, where Milnes Marshall guided him in his study of biology, he gained a scholarship at Exeter College, Oxford. Before going to Oxford he won the Dalton Prize for natural history.

Spencer began his studies at Oxford in 1881, in June 1884 he qualified for his B.A. degree obtaining first-class honours in biology. In 1885 he became assistant to Professor Moseley and shortly afterwards had valuable experience helping him and Professor Tylor to remove the Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers collection from South Kensington to Oxford. His association with these distinguished men in this task no doubt largely helped to develop his interest in anthropology and museum work. In January 1886 he obtained a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford. He had already contributed various papers to scientific journals, one of which, on the Pineal eye in lizards, had aroused much interest, and having applied for the professorship of biology at Melbourne in June 1886 was elected to that chair in January 1887. A few days later he was married to Mary Elizabeth Bowman and left for Australia where he arrived in March. He immediately set about organizing his new school, the chair had just been founded, and succeeded in getting a grant of £8000 to begin building his lecture rooms and laboratories. He showed much capability as a lecturer and organizer, and also took a full part in the general activities of the university. But his interests were not confined to his university duties, he took a leading part in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, and the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and did valuable work for those bodies.

In 1894 a new field was opened up for Spencer when he joined the W.A. Horn scientific expedition which left Adelaide in May 1894 to explore Australia. In July he met Francis James Gillen at Alice Springs with whom he was to be so much associated in the study of the Aborigines. The expedition covered some 2000 miles in about three months and on his return Spencer busied himself with editing the report to which he also largely contributed, it was published in 1896. In November 1896 Spencer was again at Alice Springs beginning the work with Gillen which resulted in the Native Tribes of Central Australia, published in 1899 and partly opposed by Carl Strehlow and Moritz von Leonhardi. Gillen was a remarkable man who had won the confidence of the natives by his kindly understanding of their point of view. He had learned their language, and the blacks had faith in him. Spencer too was gifted with patience, understanding and kindliness, and soon gained their confidence also. He continued this work with Gillen during the vacations of the two following years. An immense amount of material relating to tribal customs was accumulated, and the book, with the names of both Gillen and Spencer on the title page. It created a great sensation in the scientific world, and although it could not be expected that there would be general agreement as to the conclusions to be drawn from it, all could agree that here was a sound and remarkable piece of research work.

Spencer had been appointed a trustee of the public library in 1895. When Sir Frederick McCoy died in May 1899 he became honorary director of the national museum. He was to do an enormous amount of work in the following years, and to present to the museum many valuable collections of sacred and ceremonial Aboriginal objects collected during his journeys. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1900 and in 1901 spent 12 months in the field with Gillen going from Oodnadatta to Powell Creek and then eastward to Borraloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Their experiences and studies formed the basis of the next book, The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, which appeared in 1904, dedicated to David Syme, who had given £1000 towards the cost of the expedition. In this year Spencer became president of the professorial board, an office he was to hold for seven years. There was then no paid vice-chancellor at Melbourne university and much administrative work fell on Spencer's shoulders. He carried it competently and without complaint and even found time to take an interest in the sporting activities of the undergraduates. In 1911 at the request of the Commonwealth government he led an expedition in the Northern Territory sent to make inquiries into conditions there, and in the following year he published his Across Australia and also accepted the position of special commissioner and chief protector of Aborigines. He explored much little-known territory and got in touch with new tribes. The story of this will be found in Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (1914).

The Arunta: a Study of a Stone Age People Wanderings in Wild Australia

An Australian Research Council project is currently underway to aggregate and digitise the original Spencer and Gillen collection.

Spencer, who had been the President of the Melbourne University Sports Union, was the President of the Victorian Football League from 1919 to 1925.

In 1976 he was honoured on a postage stamp bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post.

Living octopus

Living octopus

In countries which are located near sea coasts, sea food is an important part of national cuisine