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Henry John de Suffren Disney was born in Watford, England on the 22nd September, 1919. From an early age he suffered from health problems; he had coeliac disease and a growing deafness in one ear.
Even as a child, Disney enjoyed collecting specimens and exploring the family’s garden. His parents were both keen naturalists and encouraged Disney’s enthusiasm. Disney was also very interested in camping and physical fitness, an interest that remained with him throughout his life. He joined the Catholic School Boys Exploring Society and went on two expeditions with them as a youth, to Finland and Newfoundland. It was on these trips that he developed his well known fondness for porridge as fuel for field work.
University and War Service
Disney chose to pursue his interest in the natural sciences during his studies at Cambridge. He studied Zoology, Botany and Geology but had no clear idea what sort of profession he wanted to take up.
Like many people, at the start of World War II Disney put his future on hold to join the war effort. Initially Disney was told to continue his studies at Cambridge because of his deafness. However, he was keen to take part and through a connection of his father’s managed to volunteer for the RAF as a physical training instructor in 1940. This role didn’t last long and Disney struggled to find a suitable position given his youth and hearing problems. Amongst other things he joined the Ground Gunners, a Master Provision team, and for a time was a photographer.
Work in Africa
In 1946 Disney left the RAF and found a job in South Africa at the Kaffrarian Museum. He was frustrated by the lack of training that he received and eventually found a new job as an entomologist for the Empire Cotton Growing Corporation. He took up this position and moved to the British Tanganyika Territory (now Tanzania). It wasn’t until 1952 when Disney began work as a Zoologist for the Department of Agriculture in Tanganyika that he began to do research on birds, namely, the Red-billed Quelea. It was this notorious pest that would be Disney’s research focus for much of the next eight years and which inspired his interest in sexing and aging birds.
The Red-billed Quelea, also known as the Dioch, is native to Africa and feeds on grains and seeds. Queleas travel in large flocks which can decimate crops very quickly. Disney was employed to study their habits and work on eradicating them. At the time, noted Ornithologist Jock Marshal was also doing field work in Tanganyika and worked with Disney during this time. Marshall and Disney’s research aimed to discover, amongst other things, whether factors such as recent rainfall and the availability of food would induce breeding behavior in captive Quelea. Disney also participated in Quelea eradication attempts, which included firing flamethrowers at nesting trees or setting off explosives nearby.
Later in his time in Africa Disney did research on Giant Pouched Rats and the Clawless Otter. Trapping rats and otters for examination was an important part of this research. Once, Disney found an otter cub in one of the traps and brought it home with him. The cub was kept as part pet, part research subject for the remainder of Disney’s time in Africa. In his notebooks, Disney described putting the cub in the bath with his young son where it paddled about happily.
Work at the Australian Museum
Disney’s work in Africa came to an end in 1961 with Tanzanian independence. He came to the Australian Museum in 1962 to be the new Curator of Birds after the departure of Allen Keast. Disney was the last person to be given the title “Curator of Birds” at the Museum.
When Disney began work at the Museum he found that the collection of birds and the records kept about them were very limited. Specimens were an important part of Disney’s research and so reorganizing and expanding the collection was a priority during the first 5 years of his time at the Museum. Some of his methods for collecting information about specimens were drawn from his time in Africa, where he had begun to keep datasheets on the specimens he gathered. Always thorough, Disney would often sex birds himself as they were being treated by the museum Preparators to ensure that it was done correctly.
A significant part of Disney’s research was done in the field. Disney went on expeditions to many different locations around Australia including the Simpson Desert, Queensland rainforests and Norfolk Island. Many of these expeditions were very physically demanding and Disney did Judo in his spare time to keep fit. In one instance on Lord Howe Island Disney fell off a small cliff but prevented any serious injuries by doing a somersault.
From time to time Disney would bring back specimens for other departments or travel with researchers from other disciplines. He famously shot Curator of Mammals Basil Marlow while on an expedition, which some claim was the climax of an argument about porridge. Disney maintained that Marlow inadvertently moved into range while Disney was shooting at a bird in flight and caught the bullet. Luckily as Disney worked with small birds the bullets were proportionally small as well and Basil was largely unharmed. On another occasion Disney shot a butterfly which he knew entomologist Courtenay Smithers had wanted a specimen of. The butterfly’s body was destroyed but the wings were intact, and as Disney noted, this was the only part of the butterfly Smithers needed to examine.
Disney’s overarching research goal during his time at the Australian Museum was to enable people to sex and age birds more consistently and accurately; and to do this by increasing the quality and extent of information available on the subject. To this end, over the course of his career he studied many different species of birds including the Peewee, Butcher bird and Satin Bower Bird.
“Bird in the Hand”
Throughout his time at the Museum Disney contributed a series of articles (titled “Bird in the Hand”) to the Australian Bird Bander, a journal for ornithological researchers. The articles explained how to age and sex various Australian birds and were based on Disney’s research. This series of over 30 articles was eventually compiled into a book of the same name published in 1974.
The Lord Howe Island Woodhen
In 1969 Disney became involved in a project that would occupy a significant portion of his time for the next 10 years: saving the Lord Howe Island woodhen, a small flightless bird. Disney’s first trip to the island was as one of many researchers contributing to an ecological survey of the island. After the dire state of the woodhen was revealed (only 16 birds remained), Disney returned to the island with his colleague Peter Fullagar (CSIRO) many times to study the woodhens and their environment.
Unfortunately the woodhen’s numbers continued to dwindle over the years as rats and wild pigs took their toll. Disney recommended that the woodhens be bred on the island to regenerate the species. Captive breeding and other conservation efforts (such as reducing the populations of rats and wild pigs) were implemented in the late 1970s and the woodhen population has greatly increased since that time.
National Photographic Index of Australian Birds
In 1971 Disney became an advisor to the National Photographic Index of Australian Birds. As in all things, his focus was on making the maximum amount of useful information available to researchers. Rather than select the most beautiful photo, Disney preferred images which were the most informative.
Disney retired from the Australian Museum in 1979 but continued to work on some of his long term projects for many years after. He visited Lord Howe Island several times in the 1980s and continued to work on the National Photographic Index until 1994. He passed away in 2014 at the age of 95.
Boles, W. (2012). “180 years of Stuff Birds: Ornithology at the Australian Museum”.
In W. E. Davis, Jr., H. F. Recher and W. E. Boles (eds), Contributions to the history of
Australasian ornithology Volume II. Cambridge, MA: Nuttall Ornithological Club.
Disney, H. J. deS. (1951 – 1963). Research papers – Tanganyika (AMS551). Australian Museum
Archives, Australian Museum, Sydney.
Disney, H. J. deS. (1962 – 1994). Research papers – Australian Museum (AMS606). Australian
Museum Archives, Australian Museum, Sydney.
Disney, H. J. deS. (2004). An oral history with John Disney/Interviewer: Mary Ann Hamilton.
Australian Museum Archives Oral History Project, Australian Museum, Sydney.
Robin, L. (2001). The flight of the emu: A hundred years of Australian Ornithology 1901-2001.
Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.