SERVENTY, Dominic Louis

Dominic Serventy

Dominic Louis Serventy (1904-1988), ornithologist and conservationist, was born on 28 March 1904 at Brown Hill, near Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, eldest of eight children of Dalmatian-born parents Vincent (Victor) Serventy and his wife Antica (Annie), née Gabelich.  Dom was educated at state primary schools at Armadale and Gosnells and at Perth Boys’ and Perth Modern schools.  He first worked as a journalist, initially with Australian United Press and then with the West Australian.  A keen birdwatcher, he was encouraged by Ludwig Glauert.  With several leading naturalists he founded the Western Australian Naturalists’ Club in 1924, serving as its first secretary and treasurer.  In 1926-31 he was State secretary of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union.

Enrolling part time at the University of Western Australia in 1928, Serventy graduated with first-class honours in zoology (B.Sc., 1931).  In 1931 he was awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (Ph.D., 1933); his thesis was on marine invertebrates.  On 22 March 1934 at the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge, he married with Catholic rites Gertrude Lange (d.1977) and returned to Perth, where he was appointed assistant-lecturer in zoology at UWA.

In 1937 Serventy joined the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, fisheries investigation section (division of fisheries from 1940), Cronulla, New South Wales.  Sent to Europe and the United States of America to visit marine laboratories, he concentrated on tuna.  His first published report was The Australian Tunas (1941), a plain-language pamphlet designed to inform fishermen and the canning industry of the division’s research.  He also wrote scientific papers on tuna for the Journal of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and other specialist journals.  From 1939 he noted a correlation between short-tailed shearwater (mutton bird) numbers and southern bluefin tuna activity.  When fisheries research in south-eastern Australia was discontinued in 1942-43 he moved back to Perth, set up a laboratory for the division and began research in Western Australian waters.  He published on ornithology in scientific and natural history journals, and A Handbook of Birds of Western Australia (1948) with H. M. Whittell.

Serventy transferred to the wildlife survey section of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Perth in 1951.  He became internationally recognised for his thirty-year study of the migration patterns and the biology of mutton birds.  Interested in all aspects of ornithology, he made many expeditions into remote parts of Australia, enjoying the companionship of bushmen as much as that of trained scientists.  One trip, with A. J. Marshall and (Sir) Russell Drysdale, was documented by Marshall and Drysdale in Journey Among Men (1966).  Promoted to principal research officer in 1961 and to senior principal research scientist in 1966, Serventy was officer-in-charge (1965-69) of the Helena Valley laboratory.  However, he never allowed administration or bureaucratic protocol to interfere with his research; he retired from CSIRO in 1969.  With his brother Vincent and John Wareham, he published the acclaimed A Handbook of Australian Sea-birds (1971).  A compilation of his own data and information from several other sources was used by the Australian Biological Resources Study to produce computerised maps, Distribution of Birds on the Australian Mainland (1977).

In 1947 Serventy had inaugurated The Western Australian Naturalist and served as its editor until 1980.  He was president of the RAOU (1947-49) and of the WA Naturalists’ Club (1962-64).  A corresponding member of the British, German, South African, Argentinian, US and French ornithological societies, he was chairman of the standing committee on Pacific conservation and a member of the permanent executive committee of the International Ornithological Congress.  He was a member (1943-74) of the Western Australian Wildlife Authority.

In 1971 Prince Bernhard named Serventy a knight of the Dutch Order of the Golden Ark.  He was appointed MBE (1973).  The royal societies of Victoria (1956), Tasmania (1970) and Western Australia (1979) awarded him medals.  He was a collector of Australiana.  Tall and erect, and active nearly to the end of his life, he was an inspiration for generations of members of the WA Naturalists’ Club.  Survived by his three sons, he died on 8 August 1988 at Nedlands and was cremated.  Serventy Island, off the coast of Western Australia, was named for him; Birds Australia awards the D. L. Serventy medal annually for outstanding published work on birds in the Australasian region.

Rica Erickson, ‘Serventy, Dominic Louis (1904–1988)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 14 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012