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MacLeay, Sir William John


In later life the second name was not used, was born at Wick, Scotland, on 13 June 1820. He was the second son of Kenneth Macleay and a nephew of Alexander Macleay (q.v.). Educated at the Edinburgh academy he began to study medicine at the university, but when he was 18 years old his widowed mother died, and he decided to go to Australia with his cousin, W. S. Macleay (q.v.). They arrived at Sydney in March 1839. William Macleay took up land at first near Goulburn, and afterwards on the Murrumbidgee River. Like other landowners of the period he went through many hardships and anxieties, but by 1855 he was well established and in a good financial position. In that year he was elected to the old legislative council as member for the Lachlan and Lower Darling, and in April 1856 was elected to the legislative assembly for the same constituency. He was a member of the assembly for nearly 20 years, generally took an independent attitude, was a constant advocate for the extension of the railways, and sat on several special committees. In December 1864, when returning to Sydney after an election, he showed courage in resisting a notorious band of bushrangers. Some 10 years later Macleay was one of seven men to whom the government awarded gold medals "for gallant and faithful services" during the bushranging period. He had been living in Sydney since 1857, the year of his marriage to Susan Emmeline Deas-Thomson, and was now able to develop his interest in science. He had made a small collection of insects, and in 1861 began to extend it considerably. In April 1862 a meeting was held at his house and it was decided to found a local Entomological Society. Macleay was elected president and held the position for two years. The society lasted 11 years and, not only was Macleay the author of the largest number of papers, he also bore most of the expense. He had succeeded to the Macleay collection on the death of W. S. Macleay in 1865, and in 1874 decided to extend it from an entomological collection into a zoological collection. In this year the Linnean Society of New South Wales was founded, of which he was elected the first president, and in May 1875, having fitted up the barque Chevert, he sailed for New Guinea, where he obtained what he described as "a vast and valuable collection" of zoological specimens.

After his return from New Guinea Macleay spent much time in fostering the Linnean Society. He presented many books and materials for scientific work to it, which were all destroyed when the garden palace was burnt down in September 1882. In spite of this blow the society continued on its way and gradually built up another library. In 1885 Macleay erected a building for the use of the society in Ithaca-road, Elizabeth Bay, and endowed it with the sum of 14,000. He had contributed several papers to the Proceedings of the society, and in 1881 his Descriptive Catalogue of Australian Fishes was published in two volumes. Three years later a Supplement to this catalogue appeared, and in the same year his Census of Australian Snakes was reprinted from the Proceedings. He had hoped to make a descriptive catalogue of the Dipterous insects of Australia, but his health began to fail and he did not get far with it. He realized that much could be done to prevent diseases like typhoid fever and strongly urged the appointment of a government bacteriologist. Receiving little support he eventually left 12,000 to the university of Sydney for the foundation of a chair or lectureship in bacteriology. In 1890 the government having provided a building in the university grounds he handed the valuable Macleay collection to the university, together with an endowment of 6000 to provide for the salary of a curator. Macleay died on 7 December 1891; his wife survived him but there were no children. He was knighted in 1889. By his will he left 6000 to the Linnean Society for general purposes and 35,000 to provide four Linnean Macleay fellowships of 400 per annum each, to encourage and advance research in natural science. In leaving 12,000 to the university for bacteriology Macleay was in advance of his time, as the university was not prepared to carry out the conditions relating to the teaching of bacteriology in the medical course, and returned the money to the executors. Nearly 40 years later a professorship in bacteriology was established from the Bosch (q.v.) fund. The money returned was handed to the Linnean Society which employed a bacteriologist with the income.

Macleay in his unostentatious way did much for the colony. He did not come into prominence as a politician though he did conscientious work. In addition to nearly 20 years in the lower house he was from 1877 a nominated member of the upper house for about 10 years, and was more than once usefully employed as a chairman of royal commissions. As a scientist he would have made no claim to valuable original work though he did much that was useful. References to his papers contributed to the entomological and Linnean Societies of New South Wales will be found on page 709 of the 1891 volume of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. Over a long period he steadily helped and encouraged the pursuit of science, and his benefactions have been of great use in enabling the work to continue to be carried on without financial anxiety.


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