Robert John (Robin) Tillyard [1881-1937]

By Colin WardApril 18th, 2013

Robert John (Robin) Tillyard was born on 31 January 1881 at Norwich, Norfolk, England, the son of John Joseph Tillyard, solicitor, and his wife Mary Ann Frances, nee Wilson. He was named Robert but was known throughout his life as Robin. Educated at Dover College he intended to enter the army but was rejected on account of having suffered from rheumatism.

Education and teaching

He won a scholarship for classics at Oxford University and another for mathematics at Cambridge University and decided to go to Queens’ College, Cambridge (BA, 1903; MA, 1907), being placed senior optime in the mathematics tripos. After reading oriental languages and theology, in 1904 Robin abandoned ideas of joining the Church, but a search for health took him to Australia where he was second mathematics and science master at Sydney Grammar School from 1904-13.

The move to scientific research at the University of Sydney

Progressively more absorbed with studies on insects, he resigned to study zoology at the University of Sydney (BSc, 1914). He was seriously injured in a railway accident in 1914 and had a slow recovery, but in 1915 became Linnean Macleay Fellow in Zoology at the University of Sydney. The fellowship (1915-20) allowed him full time for research. His broadening interests were reflected in publications on dragonflies, lacewings and scorpionflies. He became particularly interested in the phylogeny of a group of higher insect orders which he called the panorpoid complex. In 1920 he published his classic work, ‘The Biology of Dragonflies’ Sc.D. from the University of Cambridge.

Chief, Biology Department, Cawthron Institute at Nelson, New Zealand, (1921-28)

His knowledge of aquatic insects led the New Zealand government to invite him, in 1919, to investigate diminishing trout numbers and he was chief of the biology department of the Cawthron Institute at Nelson, New Zealand, from 1921-28. Following the biological control in France of the woolly aphis apple pest with a parasite introduced from North America, Tillyard established the same parasite so successfully in New Zealand that he was encouraged to advocate biological control of other pests. During 1921-24, largely single-handed and despite severe ill health, he wrote ‘The Insects of Australia and New Zealand’ (Sydney, 1926), a book which gave enormous impetus to the study of entomology. In England in 1926, he canvassed the advantages of biological control and obtained valuable financial support. There was little success, however, at that time from campaigns against further insect pests and weeds in New Zealand.

At CSIR (1928-34)

Tillyard’s reputation prompted the newly created Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Australia to offer him the position of Chief of the Division of Economic Entomology in Canberra. At first reluctant, he eventually accepted and was appointed Chief on 1 April 1928. He held this position for six years, but the state of his health compelled him to retire on a pension in 1934. He was the third Chief to be appointed by CSIR, behind Thorburn Brailsford Robertson (Chief of the Division of Animal Nutrition on 1/2/28) and Bertram Thomas Dickson (Division of Economic Botany on 27/2/28). He maintained what was then a far-sighted advocacy of biological control, but in the absence of any early successes the CSIR became disillusioned. Its attitude, combined with some of Tillyard’s not very felicitous interactions with staff members and his increasing restiveness with administrative matters, made the early 1930s an unfulfilling time for him. Primarily a systematist with a broad interest in the natural history of insects, Tillyard was neither an applied entomologist nor an ecologist and surprisingly, made no use of his mathematical talents in his research. One of his achievements was to establish insect taxonomy within the division. He also made important contributions to insect palaeontology. Rohan Rivett in his 1972 book ‘David Rivett: Fighter for Australian Science’ (p105) described those CSIR years as follows:

‘When the CSIR sought for a man to tackle the huge problems of destruction wrought by insects on the Australian economy one candidate stood out above all others. He was Dr RJ Tillyard of the Cawthron Institute [NZ]. Tillyard’s collections and descriptions of insect life had made him a world figure. After difficult negotiations he was brought to Canberra, made a profound impression on members of both Houses of Parliament in a unique address and was appointed Chief of the [Economic] Entomology Division of CSIR in March 1928 at a salary higher than that of any other. This appointment could have been a major tragedy for CSIR. Tillyard, for all his brilliance, suffered such mental stresses that he was difficult [to deal with in this role]. Within months Rivett [CEO of CSIR] had resignations pending from almost every scientist who had come into frequent contact with Tillyard. In July 1933 Dr Tillyard suffered a breakdown in New York. Effective control of his department had for some time fallen on Dr AJ Nicholson. Finally, after prolonged sick leave had failed to produce any assurance from experts of Tillyard’s ultimate recovery, Dr Nicholson took over as Chief of Economic Entomology.’

Throughout his life Tillyard was plagued by pain, ill health and accidents; the railway crash in 1914 was responsible for his badly bent back. Following a nervous breakdown after the Pan-Pacific Science Congress in Chicago in 1933, he resigned in February 1934.

Later years

In his last years Tillyard was much interested in some work on supposed pre-Cambrian fossils in South Australia, which was done in co operation with Edgeworth David. The account of their investigations is contained in ‘Memoir on Fossils of the late Pre-Cambrian’, by David and Tillyard, published in 1936. Tillyard was one of the most influential workers on the fossils of the Elmo Permian deposits, believing that the key to the true classification of insects would be found in these early fossils.

Despite his physical frailty, he had an intense vitality and the ‘enthusiasm of a delighted schoolboy’. His forehead was high and his keen brown eyes gave shrewd appraisal through his large spectacles. Egocentric, with a mercurial disposition, he was a convincing and dramatic lecturer whose conversation reflected alertness, wit and ‘puckish humour’. While spiritualism absorbed him in his later years, he took a keen interest in civic affairs and higher education; he was a councillor of Canberra University College and joint editor of the Australian National Review.

He died on 13 January 1937 in Goulburn District Hospital from injuries received in a car accident, and was buried in the churchyard of the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra.

Honours and awards

He received many honours and was a member of many scientific bodies His scientific publications (over 200) are listed in Anthony Musgrave’s ‘Bibliography of Australian Entomology, 1775-1930’ (Sydney, 1932) and in an unpublished supplement.


1928 Honorary Fellow, Queens’ College, Cambridge
1925 Fellow, Royal Society, UK.


1935 Mueller medal
1931 (WB) Clarke Medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales
1929 RM Johnston Memorial Medal of the Royal Society of Tasmania
1926 Trueman Wood Medal of the Royal Society of Arts and Science, London
1917 Crisp Prize and Medal of the Linnean Society, London


Norris KR, Waterhouse DF, 1990, ‘Tillyard, Robin John (1881–1937’, Australian Dictionary of Biography,, first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990.

Wikipedia, ‘Robert John Tillyard’,

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