David Fleay

David Fleay bigraphy, stories - Zoologists

David Fleay : biography

6 January 1907 – 7 August 1993

David Howells Fleay (6 January 1907 in Ballarat, Victoria – 7 August 1993) was an Australian naturalist who pioneered the captive breeding of endangered species, and was the first person to breed the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) in captivity.


  • First captive breeding of the platypus (1943), Mulgara (1955), Planigale (midget marsupial) (1958), Taipan (snake) (1960), Powerful Owl Ninox strenua (1968), Greater Sooty Owl Tyto tenebricosa (1969), Grey Goshawk (1971), Australian Masked Owl Tyto novaehollandiae (1971), Australasian Grass Owl Tyto longimembris (1972), Crested Hawk (1975), Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila audax (1977), and Fluffy Glider Petaurus australis (1988).
  • Extensive snake venom production, including Death adders, Brown snakes, Mulga snakes and tiger snakes for Dr C.H. Kellaway of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research.


[[Fleay’s Barred Frog (Mixophyes fleayi) was named after David Fleay.]]

  • Australian Natural History Medallion for 1940, inaugural awardee
  • elected as a Corresponding Member of the Zoological Society of London in 1945
  • elected as a Corresponding Member (Life) of the New York Zoological Society in 1947
  • Appointed Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1960
  • Associate of the Queensland Museum in 1978
  • Fellow of the Explorers Club in New York in 1979
  • Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1980
  • Advance Australia Award in 1980
  • honorary Doctorate of Science by the University of Queensland in 1984
  • appointed a Rotary Paul Harris Fellow in 1984

Animals bearing his name

  • Fleay’s Barred Frog (Mixophyes fleayi)
  • the Tasmanian Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquala audax fleayii), a separate sub-species identified by Fleay


  • We Breed the Platypus (1944)
  • Talking of Animals (1956, reprinted 1960)
  • Living with Animals (1960)
  • Nightwatchmen of Bush and Plain (1968)
  • Paradoxical Platypus (1980)
  • Looking at Animals (1981)
  • photographs featured in E. Byrne’s The Unique Animals of Australia (1961)
  • Extensive writing as a newspaper columnist on natural history topics
  • Scientific papers including in The Victorian Naturalist, The Australian Zoologist, Walkabout and Wild Life

Early years

Fleay had an aesthetic upbringing: His mother, Maude Glover Fleay, had studied painting under Fred McCubbin; his father, William Henry Fleay, was a manufacturing chemist in Ballarat. After education at a state primary school and later a private high school, Ballarat Grammar School, Fleay was first employed in his fathers chemist shop and then was briefly a teacher at Ballarat Grammar.

He left for Melbourne in 1927 to study for a Bachelor of Science degree and Diploma of Education at Melbourne University. There, he met another student, Mary Sigrid Collie, and they married in 1931, the same year that Fleay graduated having majored in Zoology, Botany and Education. He was employed as a teacher in Ballarat until 1934.

Work in Natural Science

Fleay’s interest in the natural world coincided with the awakening of scientific interest in endangered species, and the realisation by the public that Australian animals were worthy of attention other than as a source of food.

He realised the importance of endangered species early in his career when, in 1933, he was the last person to photograph a captive thylacine or Tasmanian tiger at the Hobart Zoo. In the process he was bitten on the buttocks, the scar from the injury carried proudly throughout his life.

In 1934, Fleay was asked to design and establish the Australian animal section at Melbourne Zoo, and worked there for 4 years. During this time he had several scientific achievements, including the first breeding in captivity of the Emu, several bird species including the Tawny Frogmouth, and marsupials including the Koala. He also commenced research into the breeding habits of the platypus. His next public education efforts were nature talks on a Melbourne radio station, in 1937. Later that year, disagreements with the zoo’s management came to a head and Fleay was dismissed, principally because of his belief that native birds and animals should be fed what they would eat in the wild.