Chemist who went on to be insect expert

William Robert Colledge plaque. Photograph kindly supplied by Paul Gibson, Professional Services Manager, Friendly Care Pharmacies, Ipswich, Qld.
William Robert Colledge plaque. Photograph kindly supplied by Paul Gibson, Professional Services Manager, Friendly Care Pharmacies, Ipswich, Qld.

William Robert Colledge was a chemist and grocer at Newbiggin. Advertisements for his patent medicine appeared regularly in the Morpeth Herald: ‘COLLEDGE’S ESSENCE. A FINISHED, effectual, pure, and fragrant product ... by W.R. COLLEDGE, Associate of the Pharmaceutical Society, Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.’

He took part in public life, as in September 1870, when he gave The Friar of Orders Grey at the Newbiggin Penny Readings. He was treasurer of the Local Board of Health for a time, and in 1884 was an Overseer of the Poor.

In July 1875, the Wesleyans of Newbiggin held a bazaar to raise funds for their new chapel. One of the attractions was ‘a powerful microscope’ exhibited by Mr Colledge.

In 1884 he emigrated to Australia. He may have been consumptive. In 1900 he wrote to James Fergusson: ‘I do not know that I shall see England again. I like this climate greatly, and do not think I could stand such weather as you had in February.’

But Queensland offered opportunities as well, and his brother George may have tipped him off about a position that might suit him. Either way he was appointed dispenser of the Brisbane Associated Friendly Societies’ Dispensary soon afterwards.

The Herald of April 19, 1884, describes his farewell meeting in the Wesleyan Chapel at Newbiggin, when “a purse of gold with an illuminated address, was presented to Mr W.R. Colledge, who, with his mother and sister, are leaving for Australia.”

Eight months later, on January 1, 1885, the Brisbane Courier reported that several friendly societies had established a Medical Hall to supply their members with drugs etc. prescribed by their medical officers.

“The services of Mr W.R. Colledge, a chemist and druggist by examination under the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, and a recent arrival in the colony, were secured as dispenser. ... Everything is sufficiently advanced to enable the hall to be open at 2pm today.”

The participating lodges were: Protestant Alliance (5); Grand United Oddfellows (4); Manchester Unity Oddfellows (3); Royal Foresters (2); Rechabites (1) and Druids (1).

It prospered, but there were setbacks. In 1893 William’s salary was, at his own suggestion, reduced because of a severe trade depression, and only restored in 1897.

The Queenslander of April 22, 1905, in an article headed ‘Dengue fever and the Friendly Societies’, says that:

‘The Friendly Societies’ Dispensary ... covers about one quarter of the population of Brisbane. ... The demand has mainly been upon the more expensive drugs, such as quinine, phenacetin, antipyrin, salicylate of soda, caffein and aspirin, ... An assistant of Mr Colledge contracted the fever at Charters Towers ... Two assistants obtained to help during the crisis were stricken down after a day’s work, and Mr Colledge, though ill himself, had to continue his work under difficulties.’

The medicines more usually dispensed in those days were very basic, including cod-liver oil emulsion and malt, lint, sticking plaster and linseed meal.

William Colledge was a gifted naturalist. Although he was involved in microscopy as early as 1875, his introduction to the scientific public dates from a meeting of the Queensland Amateur Photographic Society in 1898, when the Courier reported that he ‘gave a lecture on the life history and habits of the mosquito ... with photomicrographic slides. The larval and pupal stages (were displayed) by the aid of tank slides, showing the living forms in motion on the screen.’

He gave the same lecture to the Royal Society of Queensland and was immediately elected a member. He sent a printed copy to an old acquaintance in Morpeth, James Fergusson. Fergusson was involved with the Morpeth Herald, and William’s letter appeared on July 14, 1900: ‘Dear Mr. Fergusson, – I see from the good old ‘Morpeth Herald’ that you are still ... at your post at the Mechanics’ Institute. You will remember me as being in business as a chemist for some years at Newbiggin-by-the-Sea. ... I know you used to take an interest in microscopy, ... so I send you a copy of a paper on the Mosquito ... I have kept pretty well, in fact have had no sickness since I left Northumberland, and for 16 years have been at the head of this dispensary. It has grown from 1,200 to 5,500 members, ...

‘P.S. We had great rejoicing yesterday on the news of Mafeking being relieved. Baden-Powell used to be in Brisbane attached to the Governor’s Staff.’

The Field Naturalists’ Club was founded in 1906. William was involved from the beginning, and remained an active member for the rest of his life. Its magazine, The Queensland Naturalist lists 14 papers by him, five on the pond or shore life, four on rotifers, and others on blackflies, water bears, an insect larva, a copepod, and ‘The ideal of a field naturalist’.

In 1910 he was elected President of the Royal Society of Queensland. His presidential address, Notes on a brush-tongued mosquito, describes the mosquito Toxorynchites Speciosa, and particularly the way its larvae prey upon other larvae in the same tank:

‘Remaining motionless, it measured the striking distance. ... the three last segments of the abdomen were quietly telescoped into each other, then outthrust, thus bringing him a little nearer. ... with indomitable patience, the same process was repeated, again and again. Until at last ... there was a flash from the seemingly inanimate body, and the larva struggled in his grip. (But) there was no escape from those relentless jaws.’ He dissected the proboscis in the adult female, and discovered that while all six lancets normally found inside were present, four were degenerate and two had evolved, one of them resembling: ‘that long brush called a ‘turk’s head,’ used by housewives in clearing cobwebs from the corners of a ceiling. This formation is quite unusual in the mosquito, but is analogous to some of the insects, whose chief food is the nectar of flowers and juices of fruit.’

He concludes: ‘in the Toxorynchites we believe we have a vegetarian, which does no harm to any human being, and is at the same time a deadly foe to the young (of other mosquitoes) ... So that we have in it an ally (in) reducing the numbers of those which are ... a danger to the health of the community.’

In ‘The biology of Toxorynchites mosquitoes and their potential as biocontrol agents’, Drs Larissa E. Collins and Alison Blackwell recognise him as the first to propose Toxorynchites for this purpose:

‘Mosquitoes,’ they say, ‘are becoming increasingly resistant to traditional chemical pesticides and there is growing concern about the potential health and environmental risks ... it is imperative that novel mosquito control methods are developed and put into general use as soon as possible.’

W.R. Colledge’s paper can be found on www.mosquitocatalog.org and Collins and Blackwell’s on www.pestscience.com. Other papers of his are also quoted from time to time in modern research.

William Colledge never married. He died in 1928, and a memorial plaque to him was unveiled at the Dispensary in 1929.