The Great Barrier Reef Expedition, led by Sir Maurice Yonge in 1928-1929, proved to be a marvellous adventure for a team of highly talented young scientists from across the United Kingdom. The group specialised in the fields of zoology, biology, hydrography, botany and chemistry, but none among them had ever seen a coral reef up close before. When they arrived in Australia in July 1928, they were feted by the press and treated like celebrities. In Brisbane, they were billeted with some of the city’s most influential families, and treated to a lavish welcome dinner held in their honour. By 16 July they had arrived at Low Isles, off the coast of far north Queensland. Their task was to spend thirteen months on a tiny island, gathering as much scientific data as possible about the formation, growth and natural resources of a section of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Together with a number of visiting Australian scientists (who participated variously in short stints), what they collectively achieved – in terms of scientific output – would turn out to be valuable ecological and geomorphological benchmarks for modern marine science.

The material for this eBook is arranged into two parts. Part One looks at the events that led to the formation of the Great Barrier Reef Committees in Australia and England and the funding and subsequent launch of the expedition; describes the research party’s journey to Low Isles; outlines the roles of the excursion’s participants (including all of the Australian participants); and provides a brief summation of the significance of the entire undertaking.

In addition, the contribution of women to the success of the expedition is explored, as a significant number of the participants were women. They were not there in a domestic capacity, but as full members of the team. Mattie Yonge, wife of expedition leader, CM Yonge, was the group’s medical officer, and she also assisted with practical fieldwork and was a skilled photographer. Several others – zoologists Sheina Marshall, Elizabeth Fraser and Sidnie Manton – were all highly accomplished in their field. Sheina Marshall (together with colleague Andrew Orr – who also participated in this expedition) was responsible for placing the Millport Laboratory in Scotland at the forefront of the study of marine production. Sidnie Manton had completed her university studies at Cambridge at the top of her class, but because women were not considered full members of the university, she was not awarded the University Prize.

Those women who were not scientists themselves also contributed to the expedition’s scientific work. This was particularly true of Anne Stephenson, who is credited as co-author with her husband TA Stephenson on two articles resulting from the research at Low Isles (and on another 12 articles with him on subsequent research in South Africa and North America). Gweneth Russell, wife of the expedition’s deputy leader, Frederick Russell, had been awarded an MBE for her work during the First World War, organising the labour supply for a munitions factory, indicating her resourcefulness and determination.

Part Two focuses on this story’s connection to James Cook University Library. It charts the course of how Sir Maurice Yonge’s private scientific library – collected throughout his long and distinguished career – found its way to James Cook University, a world away from Edinburgh, Scotland where its bibliophile owner lived until his death in 1986. This section also delves into a small curated selection of exquisitely beautiful and fascinating rare books from the Sir Charles Maurice Yonge Collection at JCU Library and encourages the reader to explore the photographic record of the 1928-1929 Expedition, as well as a series of images of Sir Maurice Yonge at Low Isles that were taken 50 years after his first visit.

The tone of the work is aimed at a general readership, though it is hoped that any reader embarking on a journey of discovery of the world of marine science might find something instructive and inspiring within its pages.

Trisha Fielding,

Historian, and Special Collections Library Officer, JCU Library, 2023.