About the records

Title Records of James Hamlyn Willis
Date Range 1804 - 1999
Creator James Hamlyn Willis (1910 - 1995)
Extent 30.02 metres (1,991 items)
Repository Library, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne
Abstract James Hamlyn Willis is one of Australia's most renowned and beloved botanists and authors. He was taxanomic botanist at the National Herbarium, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, from 1937 to the end of his career in 1972.

Administrative Information

The records of J.H. Willis's botanical activities were transferred to the custody of the Library, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, in the early months of 1996 by Willis's daughter, Ruth Churchyard. The 'scoping project' arose from initial contact made with librarian Helen Cohn, and a visit by Australian Science Archives Project Director, Gavan McCarthy, to survey the Willis records and suggest a program for their archival processing and future management.

A 14 day project (undertaken by Andrea Barnes and funded by the Maud Gibson Trust) to complete accession and series registration, and provenance and creator identification, took place in November 1996 and included work on additional records not included in the first records survey. The project identified and described approximately 22 linear meters of records, made up of approximately 4,200 items with a date range spanning from 1804 to 1995.

A proposal was drawn up to process, arrange, list, preserve and index the papers and photographs and this was accepted and consequently funded by the Norman Wettenhall Foundation, Friends of the Botanic Gardens and, contributing over half the funds, the William Buckland Foundation. The James Hamlyn Willis Botanic Archival Project was officially started in August 1999, and the records were processed by Fay Anderson and Rachel Tropea.

Most of the series were created by staff at the Library (Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne), who identified and classified the records based on their knowledge of Willis, his activities, and the structure evident in the records themselves. According to staff at the Library, the records (except for the slides which were ordered sequentially by Willis) exhibited little evidence of large scale structures or systems that may have existed when they were under Willis's control.

The Accession table of the HDMS database used to document the records captured an accurate overview of the records as they were found at the Library by Andrea Barnes in November 1996. Scholars wishing to access this detailed information about how the records were structured when the archive program commenced, will have access through the database and the reports it produces. The allocation of files to series and the definition of those series was based on the nature and content of the records as found. At all times the archivists' have endeavoured to maximise the preservation of contextual information and the structure of the files. Where changes have been made, these have been documented in the HDMS database. Files that were subsequently accessioned were either added to an existing series, or used as the foundation for new series.

Series 29 "Memorabilia, Awards and Posthumous Papers" comprises material handed over at a later date and includes awards and certificates, most notably Willis's Order of Australia award and doctorate; Willis's last diaries, memorabilia, newsclippings collected by Mavis Willis; photographs, thankyou letters, correspondence and other material regarding memorials and commemorative services held after Willis died, some of which are inscribed with hand-written annotations and small descriptions.

For those who might be wondering, ID number WILL01750 was not used.

Project completed: September 2000

  • The collection is comprised of records from 23 accessions. The codes used to uniquely identify each accession range from WILL1996/0001 to WILL2000/0002.

  • The records have been allocated to 30 series. The codes used to uniquely identify each series range from WILLS001 to WILLS030.

  • Through the processing of the records, 10 provenance entities were identified. The codes used to uniquely identify each provenance entity, i.e. records creator or custodian, range from WILL001 to WILL011.

  • The inventory covers 1,991 items, and may include records of continuing value, records sentenced for destruction and records that have been destroyed. The codes used to uniquely identify each inventory item range from WILL00001 to WILL01758. The total collection occupies 3,002 linear cm of shelf space (or its equivalent).

  • The documentation of the records at inventory level started on 28 July 1999. The latest additions were made on 19 December 2000. The latest modifications were made on 9 July 2007. This collection profile was updated on 15 November 2007.

Scope and Content

Dr James Hamlyn Willis was one of the more prominent and active members of the Australian botanic and scientific community. His extroadinary work and commitment was of great consequence. In his lifetime, Willis amassed an extensive and significant collection of papers and photographs chronicling his youth, education, conservation efforts, botanical research and remarkable career, as well as Victoria's botanic and environmental history. Spanning nearly 200 years, the Willis collection includes correspondence; subject files regarding Australian botanists, collectors, botanical expeditions and explorers; plant survey lists and collecting notes; field notes and diaries; a near complete collection of his botanical slides; committee material; manuscripts; addresses; lectures; natural history specimens; newspaper clippings; publications and photographs. Of special interest are Willis's scholarly notebooks, so high in standard that one was kept by William Lister, former Principal of the Victorian School of Forestry (Creswick) from 1928 until his death in 1973, and shown to students as a standard worth achieving.

Willis was a highly valued member of Australia's botanical community. He made significant and lasting contributions to the field of botany through his many years of botanical research and publications on flowering plants and the lower plant groups; his involvement with numerous 'botanical safaris' or expeditions within Australia (including the Russell Grimwade Expedition in 1947 and the Recherche Expedition in 1950); and his description of new plant species and plant varieties. 'Annotations in Jim's exquisitely neat handwriting are prolific throughout the [collection] and show how carefully he would cross-check information, correcting or expanding as required... In all, Willis published approximately 883 books, scientific and popular papers, pamphlets, essays and reviews' (Aston, Helen I., Muelleria 9:1-4 1996, p.3). Over 200 of these publications are found in the Willis archival collection (most of Willis's other published works can be found in the Library, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne), and they form an inextricable link in the contextual framework for understanding the associated records i.e. the draft versions and carefully annotated manuscripts and notes also found in the collection. Of particular interest are both the published and preparatory versions of A Handbook to Plants in Victoria, Volume 1 (1962; 2nd edition 1970), and Volume 2 (1973). This book 'marked a milestone for Victorian botany... was a work based largely on Willis's own meticulously gathered, first hand observations'. (Aston, p.3).

Willis's botanic interests extended beyond taxonomy. He prepared floristic lists for local areas, and published descriptive accounts of vegetation. Exotic plants also received his attention, and his total revision of E.E. Lord's book Shrubs and Trees for Australian Gardens for its fifth edition (1982) is a notable contribution in this field. Willis also played a significant role in the 'amateur' sphere of botany and in the community at large. He was most generous with his no doubt limited spare time, identifying countless plant specimens for various enquirers (including gardeners, nature enthusiasts, field naturalists and so forth), and he travelled extensively throughout Victoria to speak to local community groups and to lead them on excursions. For these occasions he had prepared thousands of colour transparencies, 'all neatly labelled and catalogued by Willis according to subject matter' (Aston, p. 3), as well as notes, manuscripts and transcripts, and cassette recordings of talks and lectures. 'Topics covered were as diverse as his many interests' (Aston, p. 3).

Willis should also be remembered for the role that he played in the conservation of Australia's historical and natural heritage, both through his active membership of various botanical and conservation societies and community groups (including the Royal Society of Victoria, the National Trust of Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the National Parks Association, The Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria, The Geelong Field Naturalists' Club, the Society for Growing Australian Plants, and the Native Plants Preservation Society). He was also active in the political sphere, preparing numerous arguments and submissions to help preserve areas of natural significance. These networks and associations are well documented in Willis's correspondence files.

Willis's botanical records represent a unique, primary source of evidence of nearly all of Willis's botanical interests and activities, from his student days at Creswick, up until his death in 1995. The records document not only the life and work of Willis, his involvement with the National Herbarium and his various extra-curricular activities, but also the history of botanical research and survey in Australia. 'He was a prolific correspondent and avid reader, with a full realisation of the importance of history in taxonomy. His meticulously compiled files on botanists, collectors, explorers, collecting localities and handwritings are invaluable taxonomic and curatorial tools, and his publications include many on the history of botanical exploration and the biographies of the botanists' (Aston, p.3). While there are some biographical files and 19th century publications in the collection, many of the biographical files compiled by Willis are currently utilised as a resource at the Library, Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, and stored in four filing cabinets therein.

'Jim Willis was a superb all-round naturalist and one of the greatest Australian botanists of [the twentieth] century' (Aston, p.4). His personal papers and records are one of Australia's botanical treasures, having long-term historical as well as scientific significance.

Much of this information has been cited from Aston, Helen I., Obituary: Dr James Hamlyn Willis AM, 28 January 1910-10 November 1995, Muelleria, 9:1-4 (1996).

Published by the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre on AustehcWeb, November 2000
With support from Friends of the Botanic Gardens, Norman Wettenhall Foundation, William Buckland Foundation and The Maud Gibson Trust
Listed by Rachel Tropea with Andrea Barnes and Fay Anderson
HTML edition
Updated 15 November 2007

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