R. J. Tillyard - Photo courtesy CSIROR. J. Tillyard

A Web Page by Roy J. Beckemeyer
Last updated: 5 June 2012

Robin J. Tillyard (1881-1937) was born 31 January, 1881 in Norwich, England.  He took a B.A. from Cambridge University in 1903 and in 1904 traveled to Australia where he served as Mathematics and Science Master at Sydney Grammar School.  A lifelong interest in natural history had become a serious infatuation with dragonflies.  He began publishing on them in 1905, and in 1913 took up a Research Scholarship at the University of Sydney.  He earned a B.S. by research in 1914 and a Doctorate in Science in 1917.  In that year he published The Biology of Dragonflies, Cambridge University Press, which remains today the definitive work on the biology of the group.  From 1915 to 1920 he was Macleay Fellow in Zoology to the Linnean Socirty of New South Wales.  Two of Tillyard's most famous publicationsIn 1920 he was appointed first Chief of the Biological Department of the Cawthron Institute in Nelson, New Zealand.  While at Cawthron he wrote the The Insects of Australia and New Zealand (1926, Angus & Robertson, Ltd., Sydney), the bible of Australian entomology for some fifty years.  He published widely and authoritatively during these years on Odonata, Plecoptera, Neuroptera, and other orders, and on fossil insects, the wing venation of insects, and the phylogeny of insects.  When the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization formed a Division of Economic Entomology in 1928, Tillyard, the most influential and internationally-known Australasian entomologist, was named its first chief.  He died in 1937 in an automobile accident in Australia at the age of 56.

Tillyard was one of the two most influential workers on the fossils of the Elmo Permian deposits (the other being Frank M. Carpenter).  Dunbar (1924) records: "Interest in...[the Elmo fossils]...was reawakened by a visit made to Yale by Dr. R. J. Tillyard, distinguished paleontologist and Director of the Cawthron Institute of New Zealand.  His own studies upon late Permian and Triassic insects of Australia had inspired him with the belief that the key to the true classification of insects would be found in these early fossils, and, when, during an extended tour in 1920, he was shown a small collection of the Kansas insects which Sellards had generously presented to the Peabody Museum at Yale, his delight was unbounded.  Stimulated by his enthusiasm, Professor Schuchert, then Curator of Geological Collections, was led to undertake a search for more of these rare fossils."  I have not been able to find much information on Tillyard's 1920 visit to Yale, but two newspaper reports (Anonymous, 1920a, 1920b) state that he did attend the  Imperial Conference of Entomologists in London (he was New Zealand representative.  The conference began on June 1, 1920 (Anonymous, 1920a).  He also attended a general science conference that was "recently held in Hawaii" (Anonymous, 1920b).  The most common method of travel from Australia and New Zealand to London at the time would have been by steamship to the USA, across the country by rail, then by steamship to London, or by steamship from New Zealand through the Panama Canal to London.  Some shipping lines offered combinations of these various routes (1926b).

Thus we see that the renewed interest in the Elmo site and its treasures after some 20 years of neglect since Sellards' original discovery, was largely due to Tillyard's encouragement and conviction as to the worth of the fossils.  E. N. Marks (Chapter 8, "Biographical History", The Insects of Australia, 2nd Edition, Cornell University Press, 1991, a source for much of the biographical info on this page) said that "Tillyard had a mercurial personality with an indomitable spirit; he was a convincing and dramatic lecturer, and wherever he travelled he took an infectious enthusiasm."

Tillyard made another trip to London in 1926.  He apparently travelled extensively through Europe that year (Anonymous, 1926d, 1926e) collecting natural parasites of earwigs to take back to New Zealand.  These reports indicated that he departed London on or around December 3, 1926 on the Corinthio, a steamship of the Shaw, Saville and Albion Line (Anonymous, 1926c).  That ship was reported to have left Wellington, New Zealand on Sept. 22, bound for London via the Panama Canal; the ad also noted that "Through fares from Australia to U.K. quoted.  Return tickets available for return via...America."    I could find no record of his departure from Australia.  There is evidence that he passed through the U.S.A. on both legs of his trip to London and back. He gave a talk at the Science Club of the Kansas State Agricultural College on April 7, 1926 (1926a).  I would expect that he might have visited the Elmo site at this time, but no direct record of such a visit in 1926 has been found (There was also a report that he had given a talk on fossil insects and insect phylogeny at the Bussey Institution (Harvard University) in Boston on April 30, 1926 (Meyers, 1926).  Then in August he gave a similar talk at the meeting of the Entomological Society of Washington (Washington, D.C.) (Anonymous, 1926a).  He also visited T. D. A. Cockerell in Boulder, Colorado (Cockerell, 1926).  I have  not found any record of his travels elsewhere in the U.S.A. on this trip, but one would expect him to have visited the Yale Peabody Museum collections.  Frank Carpenter (1926) of Harvard, also reported that "Dr. Tillyard, during his recent visit to this country, was kind enough to examine and discuss with me the fossils [that Carpenter had collected at Elmo in 1925]."



Left: R.M.S. Tahiti, the steamer Tillyard took to the USA in 1928.


Right: R.M.S. Maunganui, the ship on which he returned to New Zealand in 1928.



In April of 1928 Tillyard traveled to the USA via New Zealand, to attend the International Entomological Congress in Ithaca, New York, and to go on to England and France (Anonymous, 1928a, 1928b, 1928c).  Tillyard departed on April 19, 1928 on the White Star Line steamer R. M. S. Tahiti and was to spend 19 days crossing the USA before departing for England (1928a).  His trip took him to visits to Riverside, California, Chicago, Minnesota, Washington, D.C. and Boston in addition to Kansas and New York, then to Montreal where he took an Atlantic steamer for London (Beckemeyer, 2000, Evans, 1963. The conference was held in August (it started on the 14th), and Tillyard gave two talks (Anonymous, 1928e, 1928f, 1928g).  While on this trip he visited the Elmo site twice, on May 28 and August 27 (on his way across the USA to England and, after the congress, on his way back to San Francisco).  After his May stop at Elmo, Kansas, Tillyard gave an interview in New York that was reported on in an Australian newspaper on the 31st of May (Anonymous, 1928d).  Tillyard returned on the Union Steam Ship Company Royal Mail Line steamer, Maunganui, which arrived in Wellington New Zealand from San Francisco on September 24, 1928 (Anonymous, 1928h). 

A note in the Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society (Anonymous, 1928i) stated that the August 27th visit to Elmo was a field meeting of the Popenoe Entomological Club of the Kansas State Agricultural College: "About thirty people were in attendance, including the following entomologists: Dr. R.J. Tillyard, Canberra, Australia; Dr. F. Muir, Honolulu, Hawaii; Dr. W. Knaus, McPherson, Kansas, and G.A. Dean, J.W. McColloch, R.L. Parker, R.H. Painter, Gilbert Schenck, H.R. Bryson, S.A. Summerland, G.E. Marshall, and S.A. Kelly, Manhattank Kansas."  D.A. Wilbur, Sr. (see bibliography) published a xerox report on the Elmo fossils that included photos of Tillyard at Elmo together with Kansas State College entomologists George A. Dean (Professor and Head of the Department from 1912-1943), R. C. Smith, and others.  The xeroxed photos were not of good enough quality for reproduction here, and for the last 10 years, various attempts to find copies of the original photos have met with no success.  On June 1, 2012, the author received an email communication from Dr. Kirby C. Stafford, III, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and was pleased and astounded to hear the Dr. Stafford had rescued a folder of photos from old files that had been discarded in a departmental house cleaning effort at KSU.  He sent along scans of a number of photos taken on both the 1928 visits of Tillyard to Elmo.  Some of them are reproduced here for the first time. 


Robin J. Tillyard at Elmo, Kansas, May 28, 1928


Left: R. J. Tillyard at the Elmo, Kansas fossil beds, May 28, 1928. 

Right: (Left to right in the group photo): Dr. Raymond Hill Beamer of Kansas University, Dr. George A. Dean of Kansas State College and the Kansas Agricultural Experiment Station, Dr. Robin John Tillyard and Mr. John William Evans, both of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Australia, and Dr. Roger C. Smith of Kansas State College.  J. W. Evans accompanied Tillyard to London, then stayed there until 1929, so he was not with Tillyard at the August 1928 visit to Elmo.




Robin J. Tillyard at Elmo, Kansas, August 27, 1928


Left: Roger C. Smith of Kansas State College (L) pointing out a fossil to Robin J. Tillyard, who appears to be using a hand lens.  August 27, 1928.


Right: George A. Dean (L) looking over Robin J. Tillyard's shoulder as Tillyard inspects a fossil.  Mrs. R. C. Smith is in the right background.  August 27, 1928.



Right below: Warren Knaus (2nd from left, wearing cap), George A. Dean, Robin J. Tillyard, and, in foreground wearing hat, Reginald H. Painter.  August 27, 1928





Left: A view of the excavation at Elmo, August 27, 1928.








For all of Tillyard's contributions to science, he was, like many researchers, not an administrator, and his time at the helm of the CSIR Division of Entomology one of controversy and problems.   An excellent book, A Rich and Diverse Fauna: The history of the Australian National Insect Collection 1926-1991, by Murray S. Upton (1997, CSIRO Publishing, Canberra), delves into this period in considerable detail.  

CSIRO staff in 1930 - photo courtesy of CSIROThe group photo of CSIR Division of Entomology staff was taken in 1930 and is used courtesy of the CSIRO.  Dr. Tillyard is seated third from the right in the front row.


Note: Anonymous Australian Newspaper articles cited here are from the National Library of Australia's Trove web site: (

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