Frederick McCoy (1817-1899) professor and museum director

Born into a Roman Catholic family in 1823, Frederick McCoy was raised in Dublin. He was the son of Simon McCoy, physician and professor of materia medica, Queen's College, Galway. He showed interested in natural history from early age and published his first scientific paper in his mid-teens. He began medical studies in Dublin but soon turned to palaeontology and natural history. In 1846 he was invited by Adam Sedgwick to arrange the fossil collections at Cambridge's Woodwardian Museum. Later, whilst still under Sedgwick's mentorship, he converted to Anglicanism

In August 1849 McCoy became professor of geology and mineralogy and curator of the museum at Queen's College, Belfast. During vacations, he worked in Cambridge; on excursions with Sedgwick he prepared A Detailed Systematic Description of the British Palaeozoic Fossils in the Geological Museum of the University of Cambridge which appeared serially from 1849.

He published his major work, Synopsis of the British Palaeozoic Rocks and Fossils in 1855, and was appointed Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Melbourne, one of the first four professors in the newly opened institution. McCoy was the major force in the opening of the Melbourne Museum, located initially at the University. He become the director and thanks to him in 1864 was opened The National Museum (a virtual facsimile of Ruskin's new Oxford Museum with its stone Gothic windows, tower and great hall).

Firmly entrenched in Melbourne's Anglican establishment, McCoy used his dual roles as University Professor and Museum Director to publish on the zoology and palaeontology of Victoria, as well as assembling one of the finest natural history collections outside Europe and North America. McCoy corresponded widely with his peers in Europe, exchanging information, ideas and specimens. However his reputation has been diminished by his opposition to Darwin's theories. The memory of several protracted public arguments has also drawn attention away from his considerable achievements.
Advancing age, the demands of the museum, the growth of knowledge and his ardent anti-Darwinism decreased his influence, but lack of professional employment depressed growth in all science classes. In June 1869 McCoy delivered a popular lecture of three hours, and another in July 1870, both published as The Order and Plan of Creation (1870), denying 'authority, either in scripture or science, for belief in the gradual transmutation from one species into another' and finding geological confirmation for the Genesis phases of creation.

After his death the museum was closed, to reopen in December 1899 at Russell Street on the site he had opposed since the 1850s. The vacated building became the Student Union.

Sources: Malcolm Carkeek, 'Sir Frederick McCoy FRS - an Overview', in The Victorian Naturalist: McCoy Special Issue, 2001; and Doug McCann, 'Frederick McCoy and the Naturalist Tradition', in The Victorian Naturalist: McCoy Special Issue, 2001.
Dictionary of Australian Biography

Picture: Young Prof Frederick McCoy at Melbourne University. From: Museum Victoria.