Walter Baldwin Spencer

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Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer
Walter Baldwin Spencer.jpg
Born23 June 1860
Stretford, Lancashire
Died14 July 1929(1929-07-14) (aged 69)
AwardsClarke Medal (1923)
Scientific career

Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer KCMG FRS (23 June 1860 – 14 July 1929),[1] commonly referred to as W. Baldwin Spencer or Baldwin Spencer, was an English-Australian biologist and anthropologist.

Life and career

Early life and education

Baldwin was born in Stretford, Lancashire. His father, Reuben Spencer, who had come from Derbyshire in his youth, obtained a position with Rylands and Sons, cotton manufacturers, and rose to be chairman of its board of directors when Rylands became a company. Baldwin was educated at Old Trafford school, and on leaving entered the Manchester School of Art. He stayed only one year but never forgot his training in drawing. After leaving the school of arts Spencer went to Owens College where Milnes Marshall guided him in his study of biology. He gained a scholarship at Exeter College, Oxford. Before going to Oxford he won the Dalton Prize for natural history.

Spencer began his studies at Oxford in 1881. In June 1884 he qualified for his BA degree, obtaining first-class honours in biology. In 1885 he became assistant to Professor Moseley and shortly afterwards had valuable experience helping him and Professor Tylor to remove the Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers collection from South Kensington to Oxford. This helped to develop his interest in anthropology and museum work. In January 1886 he obtained a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford.

Move to Melbourne

Having already contributed various papers to scientific journals, one of which, on the Pineal eye in lizards, had aroused much interest, and having applied for the professorship of biology at Melbourne in June 1886 was elected to that chair in January 1887.

A few days later he was married to Mary Elizabeth Bowman and left for Australia where he arrived in March. He immediately set about organising his new school (the chair had just been founded) and succeeded in getting a grant of £8000 to begin building his lecture rooms and laboratories. He showed much capability as a lecturer and organiser, and also took a full part in the general activities of the university. His interests were not confined to his university duties; he took a leading part in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria, and the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and did valuable work for those bodies.

Exploration and museum work

In 1894 a new field was opened up for Spencer when he joined the W.A. Horn scientific expedition which left Adelaide in May 1894 to explore Australia. In July he met Francis James Gillen at Alice Springs with whom he was to be so much associated in the study of the Aborigines. The expedition covered some 2000 miles in about three months and on his return Spencer busied himself with editing the report, to which he also largely contributed. It was published in 1896. In November 1896 Spencer was again at Alice Springs beginning the work with Gillen which resulted in Native Tribes of Central Australia, published in 1899 and partly opposed by Carl Strehlow and Moritz von Leonhardi. He continued this work with Gillen during the vacations of the two following years. A large amount of material relating to tribal customs was accumulated, and the book appeared with the names of both Gillen and Spencer on the title page.

Spencer was recruited as science writer for the Australasian by its editor, David Watterston.[2]

Spencer had been appointed a trustee of the public library in 1895. When Sir Frederick McCoy died in May 1899 he became honorary director of the national museum. He was to do an enormous amount of work in the following years, and to present to the museum many valuable collections of sacred and ceremonial Aboriginal objects collected during his journeys. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London.

In 1900 and in 1901 he spent 12 months in the field with Gillen going from Oodnadatta to Powell Creek and then eastward to Borraloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria. They were assisted with their work by the artist and interpreter known to Europeans as Jim Kite, Erlikilyika, who lived at Charlotte Waters telegraph station, where Gillen had previously spent some years.[3] Their experiences and studies formed the basis of the next book, The Northern Tribes of Central Australia, which appeared in 1904, dedicated to David Syme, who had given £1000 towards the cost of the expedition. Patrick ("Pado") Byrne, telegraph master at Charlotte Waters, corresponded with Spencer for many years and collected biological specimens. Spencer named a small marsupial known locally as the kowari in recognition of Byrne's contribution as Dasyuroides byrnei.[4]

In this year Spencer became president of the professorial board, an office he was to hold for seven years. There was then no paid vice-chancellor at Melbourne university and much administrative work fell on Spencer's shoulders. Outside of these duties, he took an interest in the sporting activities of the undergraduates. He was President of the Melbourne University Sports Union and later was the President of the Victorian Football League from 1919 to 1925.[5] In 1911 at the request of the Commonwealth government he led an expedition in the Northern Territory sent to make inquiries into conditions there, and in the following year he published his Across Australia and also accepted the position of special commissioner and chief protector of Aborigines. The story of this will be found in Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (1914).

The Baldwin Spencer Building at the University of Melbourne

In 1914 Spencer was honorary secretary for the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Melbourne. He also did work for the national museum. In 1916 at the request of the Felton Bequest's committee he went to England to obtain an art adviser for the Felton Bequest. He took an interest in Australian artists. He had been made CMG in 1904 and in 1916 he was created a KCMG in 1919 he resigned his professorship and in 1920 became vice-president of the trustees of the public library of Victoria. Spencer was awarded the Clarke Medal in 1923.[6]

Further travels

Spencer paid two more visits to the centre of Australia, one in 1923 with Dr Leonard Keith Ward, the government geologist of South Australia, and the other in 1926. These visits enabled Spencer to revise his earlier researches and consider on the spot various opposing theories that had been brought forward. His The Arunta: a Study of a Stone Age People (1927), revisits and reaffirms his earlier conclusions; Gillen's name as joint author appeared on the title-page though he had died 15 years before. Wanderings in Wild Australia, published a year later and slightly more popular in form, completes the list of his books. A list of his other published writings will be found in Spencer's Last Journey (1931). Spencer went to London in 1927 to see these books through the press. Ten years before he had said that he realised he was not getting younger and must regard his field work as finished. In February 1929, however, in his sixty-ninth year, he travelled in a cargo boat to Magallanes and then went in a little schooner to Ushuaia at the south of Tierra del Fuego.


In June 1929 he went to Hoste Island seeking an old Yaghan woman who was reputed to know a little English. There he became ill and died of heart failure on 14 July 1929. Lady Spencer and two daughters survived him.

Recognition and legacy

John Mulvaney, considered the "father of Australian archaeology", described The Native Tribes of Central Australia (by Spencer and Gillen, with input from collaborators Paddy Byrne, telegraphist at Charlotte Waters, and Ernest Cowle, police officer at Illumurta Springs) as one of Australia's most influential books in the history of ideas".[7]

External image
Baldwin stamp

An Australian Research Council project is currently under way to aggregate and digitise the original Spencer and Gillen collection.[citation needed]

In 1976 Spencer was honoured on a postage stamp bearing his portrait issued by Australia Post.

The Baldwin Spencer Building at the University of Melbourne is architecturally and historically significant to the State of Victoria and currently occupied by the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.[citation needed]

Spencer is commemorated in the scientific names of two species of Australian lizards: Pseudemoia spenceri and Varanus spenceri.[8]

Selected works

  • Spencer, Walter Baldwin; Gillen, Francis James (2014). The Native Tribes of Central Australia. Originally published: London, Macmillan and Co.,1899. University of Adelaide: eBooks@Adelaide.
  • Spencer, Walter Baldwin (1904). The northern tribes of central Australia. London: Macmillan and Co. Sequel to the Native tribes of central Australia, published ... in 1899
  • Spencer, Walter Baldwin (1924). Wanderings in wild Australia. London: Macmillan and Co.
  • Spencer, Walter Baldwin (1931). Spencer's Last Journey. Being a Journal of an Expedition to Tierra Del Fuego by the Late Sir Baldwin Spencer. With a Memoir. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Edited by R. R. Marett and T. K. Penniman. With contributions by Sir James Frazer and H. Balfour.


  1. ^ Mulvaney, D. J. "Spencer, Sir Walter Baldwin (1860–1929)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  2. ^ Hurst, John. "Watterston, David (1845–1931)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 25 October 2013.
  3. ^ Baldwin Spencer, Walter (1901–1902). Gibson, Jason (ed.). "Walter Baldwin Spencer's Diary from the Spencer and Gillen Expedition, 1901-1902" (PDF). Edited and annotated by Jason Gibson; transcribed by Heather Milton. Museums Victoria: 11, footnote 26. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: date format (link)
  4. ^ Baldwin Spencer, Walter (1901–1902). Gibson, Jason (ed.). "Walter Baldwin Spencer's Diary from the Spencer and Gillen Expedition, 1901-1902" (PDF). Edited and annotated by Jason Gibson; transcribed by Heather Milton. Museums Victoria: 13, note 31. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)CS1 maint: date format (link)
  5. ^ Ross, John (1996). 100 Years of Australian Football. Ringwood, Australia: Viking Books. p. 382. ISBN 9781854714343.
  6. ^ "Clarke Medal". Royal Society of New South Wales. Archived from the original on 27 September 2013. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
  7. ^ Williams, Robyn (3 December 2000). "From the frontier: Professor John Mulvaney talks about his book: "From The Frontier - Outback Letters to Baldwin Spencer" (transcript)". ABC Radio. Ockham's Razor. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 21 May 2019.
  8. ^ Beolens, Bo; Watkins, Michael; Grayson, Michael (2011). The Eponym Dictionary of Reptiles. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. xiii + 296 pp. ISBN 978-1-4214-0135-5. ("Spencer, W.B.", p. 250).

Further reading

External links

Preceded by
Richard Thomas Baker
Clarke Medal
Succeeded by
Joseph Maiden