Ichthyologist in the Making

Gilbert Percy Whitley was born on 9th June 1903 in Southampton, UK. In 1921 he and his family moved to Sydney. At the age of 18 he applied for a cadetship with the Australian Museum stating that his qualifications were “insatiable curiosity and an ability to draw accurately with pen and ink”. With that he was given the opportunity to work with Alan McCulloch in the fishes department. In 1925 after McCulloch died, Whitley was appointed as Ichthyologist for the Australian Museum.

'Nursemaid to a Lot of Stinking Fish”

Whitley worked at the Australian Museum for 35 years. He dedicated himself to researching fishes of Australia and Guinea as well as extending his skills to historical investigations. Over his career he made 80 trips around the world to gather the 37,000 specimens he is attributed to identifying, tagging and registering. 320 of these were new species. He also published 500 papers and 5 books, on various topics about Fishes and historical research, including an extensive 2 volume history of the Australian Museum that was never published. 

In 1942 he made a brief break from the Museum to serve his country as a pilot in the Royal Australian air Force (RAAF). To Whitley’s disappointment he was rejected based on a request made by CSIRO to have the scientist assist the war effort by increasing productivity in the fisheries. It was while in this position that one of the most iconic photographs of Whitley was taken while he worked in his study. Whitely completed his service with the CSIRO , then returned to the museum in 1946.

He was known to be a man of wit and an outgoing nature which is demonstrated in his poem “ Song of the Ichthyologist” in which he parodied himself with the following lines ” Although It surely wasn’t Gilbert’s ‘dearest wish’, he’s been appointed nursemaid to a lot of stinking fish.”

'A Life Long Passion’

Whitley retired from the Australian museum in 1965 referring to his retirement as “insignificant interruption to his studies”. He continued his studies by being involved in various scientific organisations including being president of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales (1940-1941; 1959-1960 and 1973-1974) and for 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 till he died in 1975.

About the writer

My name is Alison Leeson I am currently an intern in the Archives at the Australian Museum as part of my Masters in Art Curatorship. I wrote this blog entry on Gilbert Whitley as I found him a particularly interesting personality of the museums past. I came across Whitely while working on documenting Natural History Illustrations held in the archives. Whitley collected and donated a vast amount of Illustration to the museum. Not only did he have a passion for scientific research but he was also an avid admire of the visual arts. This makes the collections he donated not only excellent examples of the scientific accuracy of natural history Illustration but also their aesthetic beauty. I have become intrigued and fascinated by Whitley as a professional and person. I am very keen to share the life of such an interesting man so others can appreciate his work and passion too.