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William David MacGillivray (1868–1933)

by E. M. Embury

from Sydney Morning Herald

William David Kerr Macgillivray was the third son of George Macgillivray, who was the third son of Alistair Macgillivray, lineal chief of the Benchallader branch of the Macgillivray clan of Glenbervie, Aberdeenshire. The mother of W. D. K. Macgillivray was Janet Haxton of Milnathort, Fifeshire, Scotland.

The father, George Macgillivray, landed in Australia in 1852, and afterwards took up Kallara Station on the Darling River, New South Wales, and it was at Kallara Station, on November 27, 1867, that W. D. K. Macgillivray was born.

In the year 1870, the family removed to the Gulf country, Queensland, and took on Eddington station on Eastern Creek, a tributary of the Flinders. This country was wild and unfenced, and savage and treacherous blacks roamed everywhere over it. However not all the blacks were treacherous, and in fact Macgillivray had the kindest feelings towards them.

Before he was 10 years old young Macgillivray had what he called a "museum" in one end of his room. With the aid of the young blacks, and the older ones, too, he began collecting insects, stones, fossils and birds' eggs.

Mr. W. Ramsay, whose name is preserved in connection with Poephila Armitiana Ramsay, passed the station, and became interested in the boy's collection. When he returned to Brisbane, Mr Ramsay sent him some sheet-cork pins and a copy of Balfour's Elements of Botany. By this latter the youthful "botanist" was able to place local plants in their groups.

The Macgillivray family at the end of 1877 went to Townsville, and thence on to Melbourne, where Macgillivray was placed in Hofwyl School under a Mr. Alexander Gillespie, who opened St. Kilda Scotch College a year later, and from which Macgillivray matriculated in 1885. During his school days Macgillivray earnestly studied ornithology.

During 1886 Macgillivray began his medical studies in Melbourne University. Fortunately he had a year's course of biology under Professor Baldwin Spencer. During his medical course he met Dr Ernest D'Ombrain, and being kindred spirits they made many journeys together for the purpose of studying birds.

In 1891 Macgillivray acted as locum tenens at Kanwa, in Western Wimmera, and made a fine collection of Mallee forms. Then a year at Bendigo, travelling as medical referee, gave him ample opportunity to study birds practically, as the travelling was done from a buggy with constant stoppages. He next spent some months at Launceston, and while there made valuable bird observations. In 1895 he married the daughter of Dr. J. H. Eccles of Newstead, and began practice at Coleraine, where he made extensive notes, not only of birds, but of mammals and reptiles, collecting many of the latter too. D'Ombrain settled in the neighbouring town of Casterton, and jointly they carried out much practical bird observation. In 1901 Macgillivray moved to Broken Hill, which was his "home town" until his death.

Soon after Macgillivray's arrival at Broken Hill, Mr. W. Maclennan arrived there with a letter of introduction from D'Ombrain, who described him as a keen observer and enthusiastic bird lover. 

In September, 1910, Macgillivray attended the Royal Australian Ornithologists' Union meeting at Brisbane, and from there he sailed for Cooktown to pick up Maclennan. He missed Maclennan and sailed for Cape York, observing seabirds the whole of the way, until eventually he reached Somerset, Cape York, where he picked up Maclennan, and, with him, made excursions in the surrounding scrub country after little-known birds and their eggs.

He left Maclennan to carry on in the "Gulf Country," and soon Maclennan wrote from Cape York that a new parrot of large size was said to live in the scrub at Pascoe River, and asked if he should go in search of it. Macgillivray replied in the affirmative, and Maclennan went to the Pascoe River and obtained the parrot, which was an Eclectus. He obtained another parrot, the Geoffroyus; a new genus of honey-eater and a new genus of finch. The four were entirely new genera to Australia. Maclennan was enthusiastic, and he urged Dr. Macgillivray to go and see the country for himself. This he did, taking his son Ian with him, and Mr Kershaw, from the Melbourne Museum.

In 1916 Maclennan returned to Broken Hill after a serious illness contracted in the Northern Territory during the course of ornithological observations carried out there by him for Dr. Macgillivray. However, as soon as he was well, he and Macgillivray set out again and spent about three months in a cutter up the Cooper River.

In May, 1916, both Maclennan and Macgillivray sailed for England with the Australian Expeditionary Forces. Macgillivray compiled extensive data on seabirds met with during the voyage of the troopship, Dr. Macgillivray was in France until the end of 1918. During that period he constantly heard from Maclennan, who was in the infantry. Maclennan had crawled out on no mans land on occasions to collect information regarding birds which had been disturbed by gun-fire.

On September 14, 1920, Dr Macgillivray and Dr Dobbyn set out for Cooper's Creek, there to study the extensive lignum swamps formed by the overflowing of the flood waters of the Cooper. The next memorable trip took place in August-September, 1921, when accompanied by his son Ian and Dr Cheeney, he went to Calabonna Lake by way of Milparinka and then due west through Sturt's Depot Glen Trip intending to investigate the desert country surrounding the salt lakes of the interior and also to see the deposits of diprotodon and other remains in the lake. A very fine treatise regarding this trip appears in the booklet issued in November, 1922, by the Field Naturalist's Club of Victoria.

In January, 1922, Dr Macgillivray, accompanied by his son Ian and Dr Finlayson, set on to investigate the nesting of the Australian pelican (Pelicanus conspicillatus) at Cawndilla Lake, Darling River. The result was seen in the most comprehensive treatise on the pelican and other birds of the inland swamps ever produced.

The next journey made was to witness the total eclipse of the sun in September, 1922. To do this Macgillivray journeyed through Cordilla Downs beyond Innamincka. We next find him in August, 1923, setting out for a long trip into South-west Queensland to search for the Charleville scrub wren, and also to make a botanical collection from that region.

In 1925 we find Dr Macgillivray, in association with Dr. Rodway, contributing to the report on the Great Barrier Reef Committee, under the heading of "Plants on Islands of The Bunker and Capricorn Groups." This report gives a complete list of the plants on these coral cays.

In 1928 the doctor journeyed to the Gulf of Carpentaria from Broken Hill, through South-western Queensland to Cloncurry, and on to his old home Eddington Station. He wrote extensively on this trip overland by car for the Emu in 1929 under the title "Through a Drought-stricken Land."

In 1929 Mr Macgillivray became honorary ornithologist and naturalist to the scientific expeditions organised to the Great Barrier Reef by E. M. Embury and continued as such until his death this year. He was making preparations to take up permanent residence on Hayman Island, and carry out research in plankton and other marine life. It was his intention, too, to put into book form the notes he had made on Australian birds. Fortunately, before his death the notes for the book were completed.

Up till his death "Dr. Mac," as everyone loved to call him, had an undimmed enthusiasm and untarnished love for birds.

Original publication

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Citation details

E. M. Embury, 'MacGillivray, William David (1868–1933)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

William MacGillivray, n.d.

William MacGillivray, n.d.

State Records, New South Wales, a025000027

Life Summary [details]


Bourke, New South Wales, Australia


25 June, 1933 (aged ~ 65)
Broken Hill, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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