Lancelot Eric Richdale was born on 4 January 1900 at Marton, the eldest child of Alfred Richdale and his wife, Amy Stewart. Alfred became associated with Oscar A. Multon and Frank Stewart in a cordial-manufacturing business at Marton. The family later moved to Wanganui, where he established Richdale and Robinson, producers of aerated waters, and later operated a garden nursery and dairy farm.
At Gonville School (1905–11), the Victoria Avenue primary school and Wanganui Technical College (1915–20) Lance Richdale was an intensely patient and dedicated student with a keen interest in sports. He developed an early interest in plants through his mother and while working in an orchard for pocket money. As a secondary school cricketer he was an excellent batsman and bowler, and although of slight build was a useful rugby back. He captained both the First XI and First XV as well as being head prefect; as a member of the school council he was an entertaining public speaker. Passing teaching exams while at school, he assisted with agricultural courses before going to Hawkesbury Agricultural College, New South Wales, from where he graduated with a diploma of agriculture.
Back in New Zealand Richdale taught in a number of North Island rural areas from 1923 to 1928, before moving to Otago as an instructor in agriculture with the Otago Education Board from 1928. He was also described as a nature study specialist and a supervisor in biology. On 10 June 1933, at Timaru, he married Agnes Michie Dixon, a teacher; they were to have no children. He studied history at the University of Otago, graduating MA in 1936, and later obtained postgraduate certificates in advanced botany. If Richdale had done nothing else but teach he would be remembered as a great educator by thousands of Otago city and rural students and their teachers. As ‘Mr Rich’ the ‘Nature Study Man’ he brought the wonder of nature to children, lifting their lives from the dryness of the classroom.
Richdale’s main interest had been in alpine flora, but in 1936 he was introduced to the study of birds – initially the yellow-eyed penguin and the royal albatross. Over the next 30 years, in spite of a teaching job involving extensive travel away from home, he undertook field research in many remote locations. This resulted in over 105 scientific books, papers and popular articles on a wide range of birds, mainly seabirds. He spent long hours guarding albatross nests at Taiaroa Head in order to protect the eggs. His pioneering efforts fostered the protection of the unique royal albatross colony at a time when public support for the principles of conservation was limited. The Otago branch of the Royal Society of New Zealand was eventually able to establish a sanctuary for the birds, and the Richdale Observatory at Taiaroa Head was opened in 1983.
Richdale was equally devoted to the study of penguins and petrels. In 1951 his book Sexual behavior in penguins, primarily on the yellow-eyed penguin, rated an enthusiastic review in Time magazine, which described him as the ‘Dr Kinsey of the penguin world’. Robert Cushman Murphy, a leading international ornithologist, stated that ‘There is probably no paper in the history of science that has involved such continuous, intimate and long-term recording of the behaviour of wild animals’. Most seabirds live on remote islands, and on tiny Whero Rock near Stewart Island, in fierce weather and primitive conditions (he initially lived in a tent), Richdale studied a variety of small burrowing petrels including the titi (muttonbird). Between 1940 and 1950 he endured some 50 weeks of self-imposed isolation, with normal days of 15–20 hours’ work. He was always ably supported by Agnes, who helped in the field and typed his many manuscripts.
This single-minded application earned him a deserved international reputation. A Fulbright fellowship awarded in 1950 enabled him to study at Cornell University, New York state. On his return he received a Nuffield Foundation grant of £2,000 for work on animal ecology and population studies. He was an honorary lecturer at the University of Otago from 1940 to 1952, and received a DSc in 1952 and the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize of the Royal Society of New Zealand in 1953. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, fellow of the Linnean Society of London, and a founding member of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand. In 1982 he was appointed an OBE for services to ornithology.
Richdale retired from the education service in 1960 and took up a Nuffield grant to England for three years in order to prepare his work on petrels. On his return to New Zealand in 1963 he deemed himself ‘exhausted’ and, suffering from a damaged back and the onset of Parkinson’s disease, withdrew from the local scientific community. Richdale and his wife returned to Hamilton before moving in 1966 to Auckland, where he died on 19 December 1983; Agnes survived him.
Richdale’s extensive records, including a range of magnificent photographic studies, are housed in the Hocken Library. As local teacher or international scientist, he had that element of genius that manifested itself in a compulsive curiosity. At all times he was a severe questioner of hypotheses, always searching for and recording in detail the factual foundations necessary to support his fierce assertion that ‘proof is the authority, not authority the proof’.