Story: Philpott, Alfred

Page 1: Biography

Philpott, Alfred

1870–1930

Milk factory worker, museum curator, entomologist, writer

This biography, written by Brian H. Patrick, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Alfred Philpott (Phillpot) was born on 15 December 1870 in Tysoe, Warwickshire, England, one of ten children of William Philpott (Philpotts), a farm labourer, and his wife, Mary Ann Wilkins. William lost his job following an industrial dispute, and with his family and relatives of his wife sailed for New Zealand on the Scimitar in December 1873. The Philpotts settled at Waikiwi, north of Invercargill, on a small farm and later bought an 18-acre, bush-covered section a short distance away at West Plains. Alfred went to school at Waikiwi, where he was first fired with the desire to collect insects after listening to a lecture delivered by his school master, Thomas Jolly.

After his primary schooling, Alfred was forced by family circumstances to seek work, first as a farm labourer, then as a wool-classer and musterer. He attended night classes for a short period, then gained a position at the Underwood Milk Preserving Works, rising to become assistant condenser. His biological knowledge and microscopic work had a considerable influence on the making and marketing of the product later to become the Highlander brand of condensed milk.

From the mid 1890s Philpott, in the company of various colleagues including George Howes and Harold Hamilton, explored remote parts of southern New Zealand, building up a comprehensive moth collection. He described and illustrated some of the new species he discovered, but sent many invertebrates, including insects, to specialists in New Zealand and overseas; this resulted in a significant number of genera and species being named in his honour. Underlining his broad interests in natural history and keen observational skills, Philpott published four papers on the birds of southern New Zealand and spoke out against the acclimatisation of foreign animals and plants.

On 4 April 1901 at Invercargill, Alfred Philpott married Clara Matilda (Tilly) Barham, a fellow employee at the milk works. The couple settled at Wallacetown; they were to have no children. Having accumulated a sufficient estate, Alfred resigned his position at the factory around 1910 to devote his time to science, particularly the study of moths. He was an honorary curator for the Southland Museum from May 1915 until September 1917, when he became joint curator and secretary.

Philpott's association with visiting overseas entomologists such as Robin Tillyard led to his being invited to join the staff of the Cawthron Institute in Nelson as first assistant entomologist. He resigned his position at the Southland Museum in March 1920. Under the guidance of Tillyard, Philpott continued his exploratory work describing many new moth species from Nelson province, the Mt Cook area and the Mackenzie Country. More importantly, he began to study and describe important structures such as the genitalia. In this field he was a world pioneer and gained international recognition. His painstaking work with Aphelinus mali, a parasitic wasp used to control woolly aphid on apple trees, was fundamental to the success of this programme. Philpott resigned his position in 1925 to devote his time to the systematic study of Lepidoptera, but stayed on at the Cawthron Institute as an honorary research student.

Philpott was an accomplished essayist and regularly wrote the leading article in Saturday's Nelson Evening Mail. He covered literary and scientific subjects in addition to writing book reviews. He was both secretary and president of the Nelson Philosophical Society. After the severe earthquakes in Nelson province in 1929, the Philpotts moved to Auckland for the sake of Clara's health. Alfred soon became honorary entomologist at the Auckland War Memorial Museum and set to work describing unnamed species. He had earlier been elected a fellow of the Entomological Society of London and in January 1930 he was elected a fellow of the New Zealand Institute.

Alfred Philpott was a hard-working, generous and very modest person. Of medium height and physically strong, he sported a thick moustache in his 30s. He was a rationalist, opposed to all forms of organised religion, and a teetotaller. He took a keen interest in the Workers' Educational Association, participating in the literature and debating sections. Alfred was also a musician and for a short time played the euphonium in the Invercargill Garrison Band. At various times he was secretary or president of the Southland Naturalists' Society. He died at Auckland on 24 July 1930, survived by his wife. His main moth collection was gifted to the Cawthron Institute and is now in Auckland, managed by Landcare Research New Zealand.

Alfred Philpott published 78 scientific papers, mainly in the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute, but a significant number were published overseas. Of the total of 317 New Zealand moths he described, 253 of his names are accepted today. He preferred Maori-derived names for the few genera he created, with Kiwaia, Kupea and Tawhitia still in use. He was essentially a self-taught entomologist and scientist who played a major role in unravelling the distinctive nature of the New Zealand moth fauna and provided a sound systematic platform for its study.

How to cite this page:

Brian H. Patrick. 'Philpott, Alfred', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4p11/philpott-alfred (accessed 19 November 2017)