William Mountier Bale Collection of Hydroids
Some of the museum’s treasures need to be studied through a microscope. The hydroids, marine animals covered with minute polyps, look like tiny feathers attached to the sea floor. Being microscopic and hidden at the bottom of the sea, hydroids did not immediately attract the attention of Australian naturalists in the 19th century.
William Mountier Bale (18511940) lived in Kew, Melbourne, and held various positions in the Department of Trade and Customs during his working life. However, his real passion for over 50 years was microscopy and the study of Australian hydroids. He was an active member of the Microscopical Society of Victoria and the Field Naturalists’ Club of Victoria in the 1880s and 1890s, joining a group of like-minded gentlemen at monthly meetings to discuss the latest scientific methods and discoveries.
Bale published 13 scientific papers, the most notable being the Catalogue of the Australian Hydroid Zoophytes in 1884. He described 126 new hydroid species, and recorded many others from the region for the first time, establishing himself as a world expert on this particular group.
Bale worked by mounting specimens of each species on glass slides for study under the microscope, and compiling meticulous descriptions and illustrations from them. His research collection eventually grew to over 1100 microslides, labelled and arranged in systematic order in handsome timber slide cabinets.
In his later years, Bale realised that his collection needed to be safeguarded for the future and he began lodging the most significant parts with the museum. Other material was acquired after his death in 1940. The Bale Collection remains an important foundation in hydroid biology, and an ongoing reference point for marine biologists in Australia and overseas.