McCOY, Sir Frederick (1817-1899)


McCOY, Sir Frederick (1817-1899)
geologist and naturalist
the son of Simon McCoy, M.D., was born at Dublin in 1817. The date usually given is 1823, but the Melbourne Argus in its obituary notice stated that he was born in 1817. The earlier date is probably correct as McCoy had a scientific paper published in the Magazine of Natural History in 1838 and married in 1843. He was originally educated for the medical profession at Dublin and Cambridge, but natural history and the study of fossil organic remains became his chief interest. About the year 1841 he prepared and published a Catalogue of the Organic Remains exhibited in the Rotunda Dublin, in 1844 appeared A Synopsis of the Character of Carboniferous Limestone Fossils of Ireland, and in 1846 A Synopsis of the Silurian Fossils of Ireland. He was working on the geological survey in 1845 and in 1846 began his four years' association with Professor Sedgwick at Cambridge, during which he determined and arranged the whole series of British and foreign fossils in the geological museum of the university. McCoy worked at his task with the greatest zeal and five years later Sedgwick spoke of him In the highest terms "an excellent naturalist, an incomparable and most philosophical palaeontologist, and one of the steadiest and quickest workman that ever undertook the arrangement of a museum. You have seen his Cambridge work and where is there anything to be named with it, either in extent, or perfection of arrangement". McCoy joined the Imperial survey of Ireland, and after completing the maps of the districts he had surveyed in the field, was appointed in 1850 to the chair of geology and mineralogy at Queen's College, Belfast. In his vacations he continued to work at Cambridge. In 1854 he accepted the position of professor of natural sciences at the university of Melbourne. He was just able to finish his Description of the British Palaeozoic Fossils in the Geological Museum of the University of Cambridge before sailing for Australia.
When McCoy began his work at the university of Melbourne there were few students, and for many years he took classes in chemistry, mineralogy, botany, zoology, comparative anatomy, geology and palaeontology. In endeavouring to cover so much ground it was impossible for him to keep his reading up to date in all these sciences, and he remained most distinguished as a palaeontologist. There was a small national museum housed at the crown lands office, which in spite of opposition he managed to get transferred to the university. In 1863 he persuaded the government to build a museum in the university grounds, and the national museum became the great interest of his life. In 1870 the control of the museum was vested in the trustees of the public library but it was impossible to control McCoy. Behind the veil of his courtesy and politeness was great determination, and it was seldom that he failed to have his own way. He knew what he wanted, and whether he was dealing with the university council or the trustees of the public library, in the end he usually succeeded in getting it. In addition to his duties as professor and director, McCoy did useful work as chairman of the first royal commission on the goldfields of Victoria, as government palaeontologist, and as a member of various cornmittees. He published two works for the government of Victoria, Prodromus of the Palaeontology of Victoria, 1874-82 (only seven out of 10 decades published), and Prodromus of the Zoology of Victoria in 20 decades, 1878-90. In 1880 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London. He died on 13 May 1899. He married in 1843, Anna Maria Harrison of Dublin, who predeceased him, as did also an only son who left descendants, and an only daughter. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1891 and had the D.Sc. honorary degree of Cambridge and other universities. He received the Murchison medal from the Geological Society of London, and many other distinctions. A list of 69 of his scientific papers is given in the Geological Magazine for 1899, p. 285.
McCoy was a fair, strongly built man, always well-dressed and showing no trace of the arduous work he was doing. He was inclined to be conservative in his views, and strongly opposed some of Darwin's theories when they were first brought forward. He was, however, a fine all-round scientist, a distinguished palaeontologist, and a great museum director who did remarkable work in the building up of the national museum at Melbourne.
The Geological Magazine, 1899, p. 283; Nature, 1899, p. 83; J. W. Clarke and T. McK. Hughes, The Life and Letters of the Rev. Adam Sedgwick; E. La T. Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria; Sir Ernest Scott, A History of the University of Melbourne; The Argus, Melbourne, 15 May 1899; E. W. Skeats, David Lecture 1933, Some Founders of Australian Geology; Debrett's Peerage, etc., 1899.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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