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Walter Baldwin Spencer, Anthropologist, Biologist & Museum Director (1860-1929)

Walter Baldwin Spencer was born on 23 June 1860 in Stretford, Lancashire, England. He graduated from Oxford University with a BA in 1884 and became a Fellow of Lincoln College Fellow in 1886. The following year he married Mary Elizabeth Bowman and travelled to Australia to take up the foundation chair of Biology at the University of Melbourne, a position he held until 1919. He proved himself an active administrator and teacher, and was the first to introduce the systematic study of zoology to the University of Melbourne. Along with Masson and later Lyle, he was crucial in modernising and raising the status and quality of science at the University of Melbourne, and instigated a new building and laboratories at the University.

Spencer was zoologist and photographer to the first major scientific expedition to central Australia, the 1894 Horn Expedition (considered 'one of the most substantial contributions to 19th century exploration and natural history in Australia') and he edited the expedition reports. Spencer also undertook numerous anthropological field trips to Central and Northern Australia throughout his career, studying Aboriginal communities with Frank Gillen, operator of a telegraph station and an initiated elder of the Aranda tribe.

Spencer was president of the Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria from 1891 to 1893 and 1895 to 1897, a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria from 1895 and president of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1904.

He was also Honorary Director of the National Museum of Victoria from 1899, and was responsible for supervising the museum's transfer to the Swanston Street site and the development of its ethnographic collection. In 1917 he donated his personal collection to the museum, which included movies, wax cylinders and photographic negatives. He decided to return to England in the 1920s, and resigned from the Directorship in 1928. The strain of his full life had taken its toll: his marriage had broken down and he had become an alcoholic. Spencer recovered, and set off on another expedition, this time to Tierra del Fuego, accompanied by a girlfriend overy thirty years his junior. He died on 14 July 1929 in a snow-bound hut on Navarin Island, Tierra del Fuego.

Spencer's publications included The Native Tribes of Central Australia, 1899; Guide to the Australian Ethnographical Collection 1901, 1922; The Northern Tribes of Central Australia 1904; Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia, 1914; The Arunta: a Study of a Stone Age People, 1927; and Wanderings in Wild Australia, 1928.

References:
Bright Sparcs website, University of Melbourne: http://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/bsparcs/biogs/P000791b.html
Faculty of Science, University of Melbourne, website http://www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au/umfs/biogs/UMFS114b.htm

Australian Dictionary of Biography

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