William John Macleay

Sir William John Macleay (June 13 18207 December 1891) was an Australian politician, zoologist and naturalist.

Early life

Macleay was born at Wick, Scotland. Educated at the Edinburgh Academy he began to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, but when he was 18 years old his widowed mother died, and he decided to go to Australia with his cousin, W. S. Macleay; they arrived at Sydney in March 1839. William Macleay took up land at first near Goulburn, and afterwards on the Murrumbidgee River.

Political career

In 1855 Macleay was elected to the old Legislative Council as member for the Lachlan and Lower Darling Pastoral District. In April 1856 was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the Lachlan and Lower Darling serving until 1858. From 1859–1874 he represented Murrumbidgee in the Assembly.

Zoological career

Macleay lived in Sydney from 1857, the year of his marriage to Susan Emmeline Deas-Thomson, and was now able to develop his interest in science. He had made a small collection of insects, and in 1861 began to extend it considerably. In April 1862 a meeting was held at his house and it was decided to found a local Entomological Society. Macleay was elected president and held the position for two years. The society lasted 11 years and, not only was Macleay the author of the largest number of papers, he also bore most of the expense. He had succeeded to the Macleay collection on the death of W. S. Macleay in 1865, and in 1874 decided to extend it from an entomological collection into a zoological collection. In this year the Linnean Society of New South Wales was founded, of which he was elected the first president, and in May 1875, having fitted up the barque Chevert, he sailed for New Guinea, where he obtained what he described as "a vast and valuable collection" of zoological specimens.

After his return from New Guinea Macleay spent much time in fostering the Linnean Society. He presented many books and materials for scientific work to it, which were all destroyed when the garden palace was burnt down in September 1882. In spite of this blow the society continued on its way and gradually built up another library. In 1885 Macleay erected a building for the use of the society in Ithaca-road, Elizabeth Bay, and endowed it with the sum of £14,000. He had contributed several papers to the Proceedings of the society, and in 1881 his Descriptive Catalogue of Australian Fishes was published in two volumes. Three years later a Supplement to this catalogue appeared, and in the same year his Census of Australian Snakes was reprinted from the Proceedings. He had hoped to make a descriptive catalogue of the Dipterous insects of Australia, but his health began to fail and he did not get far with it.


Macleay realized that much could be done to prevent diseases like typhoid fever and strongly urged the appointment of a government bacteriologist. Receiving little support he eventually left £12,000 to the University of Sydney for the foundation of a chair or lectureship in bacteriology. In 1890 the government having provided a building in the university grounds he handed the valuable Macleay collection to the university, together with an endowment of £6000 to provide for the salary of a curator. Macleay died on 7 December 1891; his wife survived him but there were no children. He was knighted in 1889. By his will he left £6000 to the Linnean Society for general purposes and £35,000 to provide four Linnean Macleay fellowships of £400 per annum each, to encourage and advance research in natural science. In leaving £12,000 to the university for bacteriology Macleay was in advance of his time, as the university was not prepared to carry out the conditions relating to the teaching of bacteriology in the medical course, and returned the money to the executors. Nearly 40 years later a professorship in bacteriology was established from the Bosch fund. The money returned was handed to the Linnean Society which employed a bacteriologist with the income.


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