Who is the man in Maccullochella?

By Brendan Atkins 6 June 2023
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Allan McCulloch was a pioneering scientist and talented illustrator who played a crucial role in developing the Australian Museum. History may have forgotten him, but his name lives on – in our rivers.

Maccullochella peelii is Australia’s most iconic fish, but the story I want to tell is about the man in its catchy scientific name: Allan Riverstone McCulloch (1885-1925).

One hundred years ago McCulloch was the most senior scientist at the Australian Museum in Sydney, second only to the director.

He’d begun his career as a cadet just one week shy of his thirteenth birthday and served an eight-year apprenticeship under curator Edgar Ravenswood Waite. When Waite moved to New Zealand in 1906, McCulloch took charge of fishes, crustaceans, mammals, reptiles and skeletons. He was 21 years old.

Murray Cod, Maccullochella peelii, named after Allan Riverstone McCulloch. Illustration credit: Marjorie Crosby-Fairall. Courtesy MDBA


McCulloch soon discovered that our knowledge of Australian fishes was like that mess of old fishing line at your favourite fishing spot – an annoying careless tangle left by others, including confusion about the taxonomy of freshwater cod.

McCulloch dedicated the next 20 years to sorting out Australia’s fish fauna, describing and illustrating many new species. In his 1922 ‘Check list of the fishes and fish-like animals of New South Wales’, McCulloch gave cautious support to the then-controversial idea that the trout cod and Murray cod were different species in the genus Oligorus.

Allan McCulloch’s ‘Check list of the fishes and fish-like animals of New South Wales’. Image credit: Courtesy State Library NSW

By 1925, McCulloch had pretty much documented every species of fish known from Australian waters at the time, but chronic disease and overwork haunted his physical and mental health. In July of that year, he departed Australia for an international fisheries conference in Honolulu from which he would not return.

Besides classifying Australia’s fishes, his legacy includes his Admiralty Islets diorama at the Australian Museum, which celebrates its centenary in 2023, and – controversially – several cultural artefacts he stole for the museum’s collection during an expedition to Papua in 1922.

Related: Meet ‘The Codfather’


In Sydney, McCulloch’s assistant of three years, Gilbert Whitley, stepped into his shoes and set about publishing his mentor’s work posthumously, including a four-part, 550-page epic called A checklist of Australian fishes (1929–30).

This work drew a line in the sand for all future fish research in Australia. Whitley would become a successful fish biologist in his own right, publishing many scientific papers and popular works.

In his memoir The Codfather, Dr Stuart Rowland writes that Whitley discovered that the scientific name of Murray cod for the previous 70 years, Oligorus, was already in use for a genus of beetles. As it was no longer a valid name for fish, Whitley took the opportunity to rename it Maccullochella in honour and recognition of his late boss in 1929.

Brendan Atkins is author of The Naturalist, the remarkable life of Allan Riverstone McCulloch, published by NewSouth Publishing (in association with the Lord Howe Island Museum), October 2022.