Australian Society For Fish Biology

Gilbert Percy Whitley

Plate 1:Gilbert Whitley c1965. Reproduced with permission from Paxton, J.R. & D.F. Hoese 1975

Gilbert Percy Whitley was one of Australia’s pioneering marine biologists.  Born in Southampton, England in 1903, Whitley migrated to Australia with his family in 1921. As Curator of Ichthyology at the Australian Museum for 39 years, Whitley was ameticulous and prolific describer of new species.  His extensive contribution to marine science included describing over 320 species of fishes and identifying and registering over 37,000 specimens.  He was also an industrious writer, publishing over 500 papers and five books.  Whitley’s publications reflected his keen interest in ichthyology, with around 300 of these publications on fishes, most of which from Australian waters.  His remaining publications included both historical and biographical material, with a focus on Australian biology and biologists.  Whitley wasdescribed as an ‘immensely likeable gentleman with an incredible knowledge of Australian fishes, history and the classics’.  Travelling extensively, and largely at his own expense, Whitley undertook over 80 trips within Australia and internationally to attend conferences, collect specimens and examine material in other museums. 

Plate 2: Gilbert Whitley, 1941, using an Australian Museum microscope of the period. Australian Museum Archives Series 163/V15796. Reproduced with permission of Paxton & McGrouther 1997.

Shortly after migrating to Australia, Whitley was appointed to the staff of the Australian Museum in 1922.  Initially he worked as an assistant to Allan R. McCulloch whilst studying zoology at Sydney Technical College and the University of Sydney. With the passing of McCulloch in 1925, Whitley was appointed Ichthyologist, then Curator of Fishes at the Australian Museum, a position that he held for 39 years. During this period he identified and registered thousands of specimens, almost doubling the size of the Museum’s collection.  Whitley undertook a secondment, from 1942 to 1946, to the Division of Fisheries with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).  Here Whitley assisted with the war effort by investigating edible fish resources.  Other significant accomplishments and contributions to Australian ichthyology included his preparation, for publication, of McCulloch’s Checklist from 1929 to 1930 and his Survey of Australian Ichthyology in 1964 in which Whitley is author of more than 320 of the 2,447 species listings.  However, much to Whitley’s disappointment the trustees of the Australian Museum decided not to publish his detailed history of the Australian Museum.

Whitley was also involved and committed to a number of professional societies.  In 1936 he was a founder of the Society for the Bibliography of Natural History.  Whitley was appointed President of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales on three separate occasions, from 1940 to 1941, 1959 to 1960 and 1973 to 1974, whilst also editing the Society’s publications between 1947 and 1971.  He served on the Councils of the Royal Australian Historical Society and the Anthropological Society of New South Wales and was a member of the Great Barrier Reef Committee.  In addition, he served as President of the Linnean Society of New South Wales from 1963 to 1964 and President of the Australian Society of Fish Biology in 1972.  In recognition of his considerable contribution to Australian zoology, Whitley was awarded the Natural History Medallion by the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria in 1967 and the Clarke Medal from the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1970.   

Whilst acknowledged for his extensive contribution to Australian ichthyology, Whitley is not only remembered for his research but also as a man of great wit and charmwho was warmly regarded by colleagues.  Paxton and McGrouther included in their biography of Gilbert Whitley what they felt was a fitting remembrance photo (Plate 3).  The photo depicts Whitley wading in the shallows holding a rope attached to a small shark’s tail, the image referred to by colleagues as ‘Gilbert walking the dogfish’.

Plate 3:  Gilbert Whitley ‘walking the dogfish’ Australian Museum Swains Reef Expedition, 1962. Photograph by Anthony Healy. Reproduced with permission of Paxton & McGrouther 1997.

Prepared by Cordelia Moore
Australian Society for Fish Biology Newsletter Volume 39 (#1) 40-42

Selected Bibliography

Allen GR, Hoese DF, Paxton JR, Randall JE, Russell BC, Talbot FH, Whitley GP (1976) Annotated checklist of the fishes of Lord Howe Island. Rec. Aust. Mus. 30, 365-454.

Anon (1976) Obituary: Gilbert Percy Whitley Australian Zoologist 19, 111-112.

Murray M, Roach J (2002) Whitley, Gilbert Percy (1903-1975), Ichthyologist and Author. In 'Australian Dictionary of Biography'. (Eds J Ritchie and D Langmore) pp. 542-543. (Melbourne University Press: Melbourne)

Paxton JR, Hoese DF (1975) Gilbert, P. Whitley 1903-1975. Copeia 4, 792-793.

Paxton, J.R. & D.F. Hoese. 1975. Gilbert P. Whitley, obituary. Copeia, 4: 792-793.

Paxton, J.R. & M.A. McGrouther. 1997. A history of the fish collection at the Australian Museum (1860-1968), with a summary of current Australian fish collections.  In T.W. Pietsch & W. Anderson (eds), Collection Building in Ichthyology and Herpetology. Special Publication American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, 3: 183-205.

Smith, C. H. Whitley, Gilbert Percy (England-Australia 1903-1975), Some Biogeographers, Evolutionists and Ecologists: Chrono-Biographical Sketches,

Pollard J (Ed.) (1980) 'G.P. Whitley's Handbook of Australian Fishes.' (Jack Pollard: Sydney)

Whitley GP (1935) Australian shark tragedies The Victorian Naturalist 14, 195-206.

Whitley GP (1951) Shark attacks in Western Australia. Western Australian Naturalist2.

Whitley GP (1952) Flatheads. Australian Museum Magazine 10, 244-248.

Whitley GP (1962) The first hundred years. Australian Natural History 14, 111-115.

Whitley GP (1964) A Survey of Australian Ichthyology. Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales 89.

1977 Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales, 101(23): 256-260.