SPENCER, Sir Walter Baldwin (1860-1929)

SPENCER, Sir Walter Baldwin (1860-1929)
biologist and anthropologist
the second son of Reuben Spencer and his wife, originally a Miss Circuit, was born at Stretford, Lancashire, on 23 June 1860. His father who had come from Derbyshire in his youth obtained a position with Rylands and Sons, cotton manufacturers, and rose to be chairman of its board of directors when Rylands, became a company. His son was educated at Old Trafford school, and on leaving entered the Manchester school of art. He stayed only one year but never forgot his training in drawing; his power of illustrating his university lectures with rapid sketches in later years often arousing the admiration of his students. After leaving the school of arts Spencer went to Owens College and, fortunate in finding an enthusiastic teacher, Milnes Marshall, to guide him in his study of biology, gained a scholarship at Exeter College, Oxford. Before going to Oxford he won the Dalton prize in natural history
Spencer began his studies at Oxford in 1881 and worked hard, resisting the temptation to spend too much time with friends and in sport. In June 1884 he qualified for his B.A. degree obtaining first-class honours in natural science. In 1885 he became assistant to Professor Moseley and shortly afterwards had valuable experience helping him and Professor Tylor to remove the Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers collection from South Kensington to Oxford. His association with these distinguished men in this task no doubt largely helped to develop his interest in anthropology and museum work. In January 1886 he obtained a fellowship at Lincoln College. He had 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. A few days later he was married to Mary Elizabeth Bowman and left for Australia where he arrived in March. He immediately set about organizing his new school, the chair had just been founded, and succeeded in getting a grant of £8000 to begin building his lecture rooms and laboratories. He showed much capability as a lecturer and organizer, and also took a full part in the general activities of the university. But 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, and the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, and did valuable work for those bodies.
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 Central Australia. In July he met F. J. Gillen (q.v.) at Alice Springs with whom he was to be so much associated in the study of the aborigines. 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. At this time Spencer must have been a very busy man but he was never too busy to be unable to give time to a worthy student. In 1896 Grafton Elliot Smith (q.v.), then only known as a brilliant student from Sydney university, passing through Melbourne on his way to England, spent a day with Spencer and afterwards spoke of his charm, enthusiasm, modesty and generosity. In November 1896 Spencer was again at Alice Springs beginning the work with Gillen which resulted in the Native Tribes of Central Australia, published in 1899. Gillen was a remarkable man who had won the confidence of the natives by his kindly understanding of their point of view. He had learned their language, and the blacks had faith in him. Spencer too was gifted with patience, understanding and kindliness, and soon gained their confidence also. He continued this work with Gillen during the vacations of the two following years, encouraged by Professor Tylor and (Sir) James Frazer. An immense amount of material relating to tribal customs was accumulated, and the book, with the names of both Gillen and Spencer on the title page, was seen through the press by Dr Frazer. It created a great sensation in the scientific world, and although it could not be expected that there would be general agreement as to the conclusions to be drawn from it, all could agree that here was a sound and remarkable piece of research work.
Spencer had been appointed a trustee of the public library in 1895. When Sir Frederick McCoy (q.v.) 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 spent 12 months in the field with Gillen going from Oodnadatta to Powell Creek and then eastward to Borraloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria. 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. 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. He carried it competently and without complaint and even found time to take an interest in the sporting activities of the undergraduates. 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. He explored much little-known territory and got in touch with new tribes. The story of this will be found in Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (1914).
In 1914 Spencer was honorary secretary for the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Melbourne. He was also contriving to do a great deal of work at 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 was also taking an interest in Australian artists and incidentally getting together a remarkable collection of Australian pictures. He had been made C.M.G. in 1904 and in 1916 he was created a K.C.M.G. In 1919 he resigned his professorship and in 1920 became vice-president of the trustees of the public library of Victoria. He 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), confirms the view that his earlier conclusions were in essentials correct. Wanderings in Wild Australia, published a year later and slightly more popular in form, completes the list of his more important books; a list of his other published writings will be found in Spencers Last Journey. Spencer went to London in 1927 to see these books through the press. Ten years before he had said that he realized he was not getting younger and must regard his field work as finished. But his eager spirit would not allow him to rest. In February 1929, 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 Terra del Fuego trying to get in touch with the few remaining Indians. In June he went to Hoste Island seeking an old Yaghan woman who was reputed to know a little English. There he became ill and died of heart failure on 14 July 1929. Lady Spencer and two daughters survived him.
Spencer was a man of medium height, spare in form, the embodiment of energy. Never neglecting his university or his scientific work he yet found time to sit on the councils of such widely different bodies as the Royal Humane Society, the Victorian Artists' Society and the Victorian Football League of which he was president for some time. As an ethnologist he showed great patience, he could understand that the brain of a primitive man might easily tire, and the thoroughness of his scientific work helped to give him the first place in Australia in his own field. His sense of justice insisted that full credit should be given to his co-workers. When The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People appeared in 1927 Gillen's name as joint author appeared on the title-page though he had died 15 years before. Many degrees and honours came to Spencer, he was very pleased when his old college, Exeter, elected him an honorary fellow. A stained glass window in Exeter College hall which commemorates some of the great men of that college includes Spencer's name. Close by is his portrait by W. B. McInnes (q.v.), and another portrait by this artist will also be found at Melbourne university. A vivid presentation of Spencer by G. W. Lambert, A.R.A (q.v.) is at the national museum, Melbourne. The unrivalled collection of implements and specimens of aboriginal art which he presented to the national museum are another memorial to him. "His writings will long survive him for the enlightenment of a distant posterity and for a monument, more lasting than bronze or marble to his fame" (Sir James Frazer, Spencer's Last Journey, p. 13.)
Ed. by R. R. Marett and T. K. Penniman, Spencer's Last Journey; E. La T. Armstrong and R. D. Boys, The Book of the Public Library of Victoria, 1906-31; Sir Grafton Elliot Smith by his Colleagues; personal knowledge.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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  • Spencer — /ˈspɛnsə/ (say spensuh) noun 1. Sir (Walter) Baldwin, 1860–1929, Australian biologist and anthropologist, born in England; noted for his study of the Aboriginal people of central Australia. 2. Charles Cozens, died 1930, English born pioneer film… …  

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