Story: Lysaght, Averil Margaret

Page 1: Biography

Lysaght, Averil Margaret


Biologist, science historian, illustrator

This biography, written by A. D. Thomson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Averil Margaret Lysaght was born on 14 April 1905 at Mokoia, near Hawera, the daughter of Emily Muriel Stowe and her husband, Brian Cuthbert Lysaght, a farmer. The second of five daughters, she was taught at home by governesses until at 12 she went to board at Chilton House School in Wellington. From an early age she developed an interest in natural history. At 15 she discovered a new species of a noctuid moth on Mt Egmont, which was described in 1921 by the entomologist G. V. Hudson as Melanchra averilla in her honour.

In 1923 Lysaght commenced studies at Victoria University College, Wellington. She graduated BSc in 1928 and MSc in 1929 with second-class honours in zoology; her thesis in entomology was on the biology of Eucolaspis. At Victoria she came into contact with two scholars who had a great influence on her later career: her professor and teacher in biology, H. B. Kirk, and J. C. Beaglehole, a fellow student, whom she met through her friend Elsie Holmes, who later married him.

Lysaght’s fascination with insects continued and at 20 she had published her first two papers on entomology. From 1927 to 1929 she was on the staff of the Cawthron Institute’s department of entomology. She was a temporary assistant in zoology at Victoria University College in 1931–32 and was later, in 1940–41, a demonstrator in zoology.

In late 1932 or early 1933 Lysaght went to England. After completing research at Rothamsted Experimental Station in Hertfordshire, she graduated PhD in 1935 from the University of London with a thesis on the nematode parasites of thrips. From 1935 to 1938 she was at the Plymouth laboratory of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom and also worked as an abstractor at the Imperial Institute of Entomology. Between 1936 and 1943 she published five papers in parasitology, including two papers on trematode parasites of gastropods.

During the Second World War Lysaght lectured at the university colleges of Hull and Nottingham and worked in the Ministry of Information in the China section. This latter work led to a post with the British Council in 1945–46. She took charge there of the supply of scientific and technical books to Chinese universities and scientific institutions through the office of Joseph Needham in Chungking (Chongqing).

In 1947–48 Lysaght was employed as assistant editor on the zoology section of Chambers’s encyclopaedia. There she met Norman Kinnear, the ornithologist and director of the British Museum, who encouraged her to work on birds and bird illustration. Years of research culminated in The book of birds: five centuries of bird illustration , which was finally published in 1975.

At the end of 1948 Lysaght took a year’s leave to visit her mother in New Zealand. While staying with the Beagleholes in Wellington she found in the Alexander Turnbull Library a transcript of Joseph Banks’s Endeavour journal that had been made for his friend Constantine Phipps. The discovery strengthened Lysaght’s resolve to study and make better known the writing of Banks. By then Beaglehole had been invited to edit James Cook’s journals and Banks’s journal, and he suggested that Averil might provide the natural history notes. Working with Beaglehole as editor, she went on to help with the scientific annotation of the first two volumes of The journals of Captain James Cook (1955, 1961) and The Endeavour journal of Joseph Banks (1962).

Lysaght was a talented artist, a gift that apparently first developed at Nottingham and later at St Martin’s School of Art in London. Her interest helped in her studies on the art of the early Pacific explorers, and also for The book of birds. In 1962 she held a solo exhibition in Leicester, where most of her paintings were on Siamese paper made from the fibres of the daphne bush. Her other interests included cooking and gardening, using garnishes ‘from her own garden, which she cultivated, as she did her study, as a uniquely ordered disarray of treasures’.

In 1971 Lysaght’s monumental Joseph Banks in Newfoundland and Labrador, 1766 was published. It was the culmination of 20 years’ painstaking research and resulted in 1979 in the award of an honorary DLitt from the Memorial University of Newfoundland. This and The book of birds were her major contributions to scholarship. She intended to use the Banks work and smaller scholarly articles as the foundation for a life of Joseph Banks, but it was never completed.

From 1973 Averil Lysaght worked from the Lyon Playfair Library at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. In this congenial environment she had a productive association with Genesis Publications: she was involved with the publication of facsimile editions of the journals of Banks and Cook, and wrote or edited scholarly introductions. She never married, and died in London on 21 August 1981.

It has been said that Lysaght’s work was disadvantaged through her not having a tenured position: her scholarship was supported by largely inadequate grants from a variety of sources, and from a small private income from her father’s farm. However, this rather precarious financial independence gave her the freedom to be her own fiercely independent boss. She worked tirelessly in her research, from which she obtained great enjoyment, and she retained a perennial enthusiasm.

How to cite this page:

A. D. Thomson. 'Lysaght, Averil Margaret', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 November 2018)