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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Masters, George (1837–1912)

by G. P. Whitley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

George Masters (1837-1912), entomologist, was born in July 1837 in Maidstone, Kent, England, son of George Masters, gardener, and his wife Matilda, née Terry. He became a gardener and about 1856 migrated to Melbourne. Interested in natural history, he was employed by Dr Godfrey Howitt for some two years. He collected insects in Tasmania and sold them to W. J. Macleay. By 1860 he was a gardener at Shepherd's Darling Nursery in Sydney. Recommended by Gerard Krefft, Masters was sent by Macleay to Queensland to collect insects for him. In 1863-66 he exhibited thousands of insects before the new Entomological Society of New South Wales.

On 2 June 1864 Masters was appointed assistant curator and collector to the Australian Museum at a salary of £200, on condition that he sold his private collection and made no new one, an agreement he ignored. In the 1860s he travelled extensively in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Lord Howe Island, Tasmania and Western Australia and in 1870 in the Snowy Mountains area and Queensland. He was a splendid shot, caught venomous snakes with his bare hands and was fearless in the bush and with Aboriginals. Masters made large collections which included a series of the newly-found Queensland lungfish, 'the preserved skin of a black gin', such rarities as the western bristle-bird and the noisy scrub bird, venomous snakes for Krefft and many thousand insects and invertebrates. At one stage he had collected more than half the natural history specimens in the museum. He also continued to collect for William Macleay and increased his own collection. In 1874 Masters testified against Krefft before the Legislative Assembly select committee inquiring into the Australian Museum. However, his evidence was inconsistent and he was embarrassed by questions about the woman whom he had taken on his Western Australian trip and represented as his wife.

Lured by a salary rise of £100 Masters became curator of the Macleay museum in January 1874. He travelled widely in New South Wales, beachcombed round Port Jackson and in the Pea Hen dredged up and down the coast for specimens. In 1875 he went on Macleay's Chevert expedition to New Guinea, where he found the first-known egg of the bird of paradise. In 1871-74 he published his Catalogue of described Coleoptera of Australia in parts and they were continued in 1885-87 in the Proceedings of the Linnean Society of New South Wales where he often exhibited his specimens. When the Macleay museum was transferred to the University of Sydney, Masters remained its curator until 1912. His unrivalled knowledge of the habits and life histories of Australian animals largely went unrecorded as he disliked writing.

Full-bearded and energetic, Masters had strong likes and dislikes. With age he suffered ill health and failing sight. After an accident in a cab on his way to Government House he died at Elizabeth Bay on 23 June 1912 and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. Predeceased by his first wife Matilda Elizabeth, née Hodges, on 20 May 1903 and their only child, he was survived by his second wife, a widow, Mary Jane Howard, née Franklin. Although reputed to own much property, he left an estate sworn for probate at £3300.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1873-74, 5, 849, 876, 1875, 4, 276
  • G. P. Whitley, ‘George Masters, naturalist’, Australian Zoologist, vol 16, 1971, part 2, and for bibliography.

Citation details

G. P. Whitley, 'Masters, George (1837–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 21 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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