Harry Forbes Witherby

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Harry Forbes Witherby

Harry Forbes Witherby.jpg
Witherby in 1937
Born(1873-10-07)7 October 1873
Died11 December 1943(1943-12-11) (aged 70)
Gracious Pond Farm, Chobham, Surrey[1]
Known forOrnithology, publishing
Notable work
Parent(s)Henry Forbes Witherby

Harry Forbes Witherby, MBE, FZS, MBOU (7 October 1873 – 11 December 1943) was a noted British ornithologist, author, publisher and founding editor (in 1907) of the magazine British Birds.[2]

Personal life

Harry was the second surviving son of Henry Forbes Witherby of Burley, Hants. After leaving school he entered the old family publishing firm of Witherby and Co, from which he retired in 1936, but resumed work again after the outbreak of the second world war. The family firm of H F and G Witherby, originally printers, began to publish bird books early in the 20th century. From an early age Witherby devoted himself to the study of ornithology, travelling extensively, including visits to Iran, the Kola Peninsula, and the White Nile. He described the latter in his book Bird Hunting on the White Nile (1902). He married Lilian Gillson in 1904.[3] Lilian joined him on his travels and even learnt to skin birds on their honeymoon. They had two sons and three daughters.[4]


He started one of the world's first two bird ringing schemes in 1909 (they merged in the late 1930s), transferring responsibility, in 1937, to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), who continue to run it.[5] Witherby was Hon Secretary and Treasurer (1904–14),[3] and Chairman (1924–27)[3] of the British Ornithologists' Club (1924–1927) and President of the Council of the British Ornithologists' Union (BOU) (1933–1938).[3] He was a founding member and early vice-chairman of the BTO, which survived through his financial generosity, not least in donating the proceeds of the sale of his extensive collection of stuffed birds to the British Museum - this is now at the Natural History Museum, Tring.

Witherby's crowning glory was The Handbook of British Birds (1938–1941). Spanning five volumes, it was reprinted a number of times, the later editions having a few pages devoted to corrections and additions to previous editions, but few of these are of great significance and the main text was left untouched. He was made an Honorary Fellow of the American Ornithologists' Union in 1928[3] and was awarded the Godman-Salvin Medal by the BOU in 1937. Witherby's lark (Alaemon hamertoni) was named for him, in 1905, but is now more commonly known as the lesser hoopoe-lark. Two other bird sub-species have been named after him:[6] Emberiza schoeniclus witherbyi (common reed bunting) and Erithacus rubecula witherbyi (European robin).

During World War I he was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve.[3] He was mentioned in dispatches and was awarded the Military MBE for his service as an intelligence officer in Dunkirk.[3][7]


  1. ^ Times obituary, 13/12/1943
  2. ^ Ogilvie, Malcolm; Ferguson-Lees, James and Chandler, Richard (2007). "A history of British Birds". British Birds 100: 3–15
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Who Was Who. OUP.
  4. ^ Tucker, B. W. "Harry Forbes Witherby: A biographical sketch" (PDF). British Birds. 37 (9): 162–174.
  5. ^ Bird Study Vol 16 March 1969 no.1, AL Thomson, text of first BTO Witherby Lecture
  6. ^ Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names by James A Jobling, 1991 OUP
  7. ^ London Gazette 8th supplement, 23.5.1919
  • Thomson, A. Landsborough (1944). "Harry Forbes Witherby: A Biographical Sketch". Ibis. 86 (2): 208–222. doi:10.1111/j.1474-919X.1944.tb03878.x.
  • Mullens and Swann - A Bibliography of British Ornithology (1917)

External links