J. D. Macdonald (1908–2002)


  • D. W. Snow

James David Macdonald, head of the Bird Room at the British Museum (Natural History) from 1945 to 1968, died in Queensland, Australia, on 17 September 2002 at the age of 93. The son of a Scottish gamekeeper, he was educated at the Royal Academy, Inverness, and went on to Aberdeen University, where he read forestry and zoology. This was followed by a course in marine biology at Plymouth. He joined the Museum staff in 1935, as second-in-command to N. B. Kinnear. In the war years he held a civilian post at the Admiralty. On Kinnear's appointment as Director of the Museum, Macdonald took his place as head of the Bird Room, and he later became Deputy Keeper of Zoology. On retirement in 1968, not long before the bird collections began their move to Tring, he went to Australia, where he spent the rest of his life. Thus he was known to rather few of today's British ornithologists.

The appointment to the Bird Room of someone scientifically trained but with no special knowledge of birds now seems strange, but in those days the duties were primarily curatorial. In Macdonald's case, he had the handicap of being very much a fish out of water, as the bird world – or at least that part of it associated with the Museum – was dominated by empire-builders and country gentlemen. No doubt partly as a result, as an ornithologist in Britain he remained something of a loner. Substantial achievements, however, included co-authorship, with F. O. Cave, of The Birds of Sudan (1955), in preparation for which he had made a collecting expedition to a little known part of southern Sudan in 1938. His own words, from an entertaining talk that he gave to the BOC, are worth quoting. ‘Perhaps I should admit that even now I make no claim to be a field ornithologist … About a year ago I was on a Nile steamer between Khartoum and Juba with a large quantity of collecting equipment, including guns, and a rifle, the use of which I had practically no knowledge. I had only fired a light shotgun about three times.’ Subsequently, the taxonomy of African larks became one of his special interests, following an expedition to south-west Africa, which he organized and took part in.

Another considerable achievement was his persuading Major Harold Hall in 1960 to give £25 000 to the Museum to finance a series of collecting expeditions to Australia, in order to replace the Australian collections lost to this country when the Rothschild bird skins were sold to the American Museum. Five main expeditions, and three subsidiary ones, were mounted in 1962–70. 1Macdonald took part only in the first one, which was partly planned to take him to the various Australian museums to ease the way for the others. After this first expedition, however, he did little more for the ambitious project, leaving the writing and editing of the final report to others. Instead, he began work on a book on Australian birds, in which he stated that ‘Much of the information recorded in this book was obtained on the five expeditions from the BM (NH) made possible by the generosity of Harold Hall’. It was, to say the least, a disappointment for the Bird Room staff that his book, Birds of Australia, was published in 1973, a year before the publication of the final report (Birds of the Harold Hall Australian Expeditions 1962–70, ed. B. P. Hall, BM(NH) 1974).

Figure 1.

Macdonald's retirement years in Australia were productive, and probably more fulfilling than his professional years in Britain, their being of almost equal length. He made substantial contributions to both scientific and popular bird study, and especially to the development of ornithology in Queensland. He helped in the foundation of the Queensland Ornithological Society, and in 1970 was elected its first President. He is survived by his wife Betty, who as a doctor, plant collector and cook, accompanied him on his 1949 African expedition and the first Harold Hall expedition.

I am indebted to several colleagues and ex-colleagues, especially Mrs B. P. Hall, for help in preparing this obituary.