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), was a British-Australian evolutionary biologist, anthropologist and ethnologist.[1] He is known for his fieldwork with Aboriginal peoples in Central Australia, contributions to the study of ethnography, and academic collaborations with Frank Gillen.[1] Spencer introduced the study of zoology at the University of Melbourne and held the title of Emeritus Professor until his death in 1929.[2]

Early life and education[edit]

Spencer was born on 23 June 1860 in Stretford, Lancashire, England to Martha (née Circuit) and Rueben Spencer.[1] His father grew up in Derbyshire, England and was managing director of Rylands & Sons textile manufacturers.[1]

Spencer attended Old Trafford school and Manchester School of Art, receiving training in drawing.[1][3] In 1879 he began study at Owens College (University of Manchester), where he developed an interest in evolutionary biology and worked alongside professor of zoology Arthur Milnes Marshall.[1][3] In 1881, Spencer received a scholarship to attend the University of Oxford, studying science under Henry Nottidge Moseley.[1] During this time, he gained exposure to the study of anthropology by attending lectures presented by Edward Burnett Tylor.[4] Spencer graduated with a BA in biology obtaining first-class honours in 1884.[5]

As a graduate, Spencer worked as a teaching assistant to Moseley, aiding him in the transferral of the Pitt Rivers archeological archive from the South Kensington Museum in London to Oxford University.[1][3][4] Spencer obtained a fellowship at Lincoln College, Oxford in 1886.[1]


Move to Melbourne[edit]

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.

Spencer arrived in Australia in March of that year and set about organising his new school (the chair had just been founded), successfully receiving a building grant of £8000 to develop new 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.

Expeditions and museum work[edit]

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 Aboriginal peoples. 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

Further travels[edit]

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.

Personal life[edit]

Spencer married Mary Elizabeth ('Lillie') Bowman in January 1887.[1] The couple had two daughters, and a son who died in infancy.[1]

Death and legacy[edit]

Spencer died from heart failure on 14 July 1929 during an expedition to Tierra del Fuego, Chile/Argentina.[11] The events leading to his death are recorded in Spencer's own journal entries, and that of his research assistant Jean Hamilton.[11] He was buried in Magallanes (Punta Arenas), Chile.[12]

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".[13]

An Australian Research Council project aggregated and digitised the original Spencer and Gillen collection which is online [here [1]].

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.[14]

Selected works[edit]

  • 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. OL 6943256M.
  • Spencer, Walter Baldwin (1924). Wanderings in Wild Australia. London: Macmillan and Co. OL 13575672M.
  • 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.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Mulvaney, D. J. "Spencer, Sir Walter Baldwin (1860–1929)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 25 October 2013 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  2. ^ Centre, Australian Science and Technology Heritage. "Spencer, Walter Baldwin - Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne Biographical entry". Retrieved 7 July 2020.
  3. ^ a b c Mulvaney, D. J. (Derek John), 1925-2016. (1985). "So much that is new" : Baldwin Spencer, 1860-1929 : a biography. University of Melbourne at the University Press. pp. 28–29. ISBN 0-522-84169-4. OCLC 13882828.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ a b Petch, Alison (March 2009). "Walter Baldwin Spencer and the Pitt Rivers Museum". Journal of Museum Ethnography. no. 21 (21): 254–265. JSTOR 41505556.
  5. ^ "Spencer, Walter Baldwin - biography". Retrieved 7 July 2020.
  6. ^ Hurst, John. "Watterston, David (1845–1931)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 25 October 2013 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  7. ^ Baldwin Spencer, Walter (1901–1902). Gibson, Jason (ed.). "Walter Baldwin Spencer's Diary from the Spencer and Gillen Expedition, 1901-1902". Edited and annotated by Jason Gibson; transcribed by Heather Milton. Museums Victoria: 11, footnote 26. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  8. ^ Baldwin Spencer, Walter (1901–1902). Gibson, Jason (ed.). "Walter Baldwin Spencer's Diary from the Spencer and Gillen Expedition, 1901-1902". Edited and annotated by Jason Gibson; transcribed by Heather Milton. Museums Victoria: 13, note 31. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  9. ^ Ross, John (1996). 100 Years of Australian Football. Ringwood, Australia: Viking Books. p. 382. ISBN 9781854714343.
  10. ^ "Clarke Medal". Royal Society of New South Wales. Archived from the original on 27 September 2013. Retrieved 23 October 2013.
  11. ^ a b Spencer, Baldwin, 1860-1929. (1979). Spencer's last journey : being the journal of an expedition to Tierra del Fuego. Marett, R. R. (Robert Ranulph), 1866-1943., Penniman, T. K. (Thomas Kenneth), 1895-1977., Frazer, James George, 1854-1941., Balfour, Henry, 1863-1939. (1st AMS ed.). New York: AMS Press. ISBN 0-404-15972-9. OCLC 4516170.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. ^ Among the Fuegians: Sir Baldwin Spencer's Last Journey, Jean Hamilton, 1930 prose travel
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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[edit]

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Richard Thomas Baker
Clarke Medal
Succeeded by
Joseph Maiden