flynn and flynn Centenary of Biology at UTAS, its first professor T. T. Flynn and his son Errol's birth, 1909 - 2009

Biography of Theodore Thomson Flynn

father of TT flynn mother of ttflynn ttflynn as a boy
Unnamed lantern slides from Theodore Thomson Flynn's personal collection, thought to be T.T.’s father John Thompson Flynn, his mother Jessie and himself as a child, but this has not been confirmed.

Theodore Thomson Flynn was born in Coraki, New South Wales on 11 October 1883, son of John Thompson Flynn and his wife Jessie, née Thomson. Educated in Sydney, he received his BSc from the University of Sydney in 1909, and taught high school science before being appointed to the Newcastle and Maitland Technical Colleges as a lecturer in chemistry and physics. His appointment to the lectureship in Tasmania began what became an eminent career in biology. 

marelle flynn

marelle and errol flynn
Lily Flynn (later named Marelle) with baby Errol
aged five months, 1909.

queen alexandra hospital

Theodore Thomson Flynn’s wife Lily
who later changed her name to Marelle.
Queen Alexandra Hospital, Hampden Road, Battery Point,
Hobart, c.1909 when Errol was born there.


Flynn’s wife Lily (later called Marelle) accompanied him to Tasmania, and their son Errol was born at the Queen Alexandra Hospital, Hobart, on 20th June 1909. Errol attended several schools in Hobart, and reportedly trapped bettongs for T.T. Flynn’s research into the reproductive biology of marsupials. 

In 1910, the university received a substantial donation from the estate of John Ralston, a wealthy pastoralist from St Leonards, who left £8,000 to further scientific research. These funds, the first major bequest to the institution, were directed towards support of the new discipline of biology. The majority of the funds went to endow a chair, and the remainder were spent on a biology laboratory and the purchase of equipment. Flynn became the Ralston Professor of Biology and inaugural chair of the fledgling department in 1911.  

appointment of flynn appointment of flynn
Indenture of T.T. Flynn’s appointment as Professor of Biology at the University of Tasmania on the 29th June 1911

Under the original terms of the agreement, Flynn was to carry out research into
1. “diseases of plants and animals
2. anatomy and development of marsupials unique to Tasmania
3. any other research approved by the trustees”.
In 1921, a new agreement with the Ralston Trustees added a 4th category of approved research:
4. research on commercial food fisheries in Tasmania.

Photographs of the University of Tasmania around the time of T.T.Flynn's employment:

university of tasmania university of tasmania
University of Tasmania, 1907 University of Tasmania - Domain site
university of tas plan 1928
Plan of the University of Tasmania - 1928 enlarge


biology building biology building
entrance to biology building biology laboratory
Top: Photos of the original Biology building, the lower storey was built in 1909, the upper storey in 1936,
Bottom: the entrance and the Zoology (left) and the Botany laboratory (Right) (V.V. Hickman photographs)


aerial view of university of tasmania 1939
Aerial photo of University of Tasmania, 1939 - enlarge

Tasmanian Field Naturalists Club
‘Soon after his arrival in Tasmania in 1909 Flynn had joined the Field Naturalists Club. ..In 1909 Flynn had participated in the Easter excursion to Freycinet Peninsula, where he led the discussion on invertebrates. In November he addressed the monthly meeting on the subject of flounder. This is an early indication of his interest in marine biology and fisheries. He told members that there was plenty of scope for dredging in the Derwent Estuary to collect specimens for study. In 1910 Flynn led the Club Easter excursion to Wineglass Bay. The steamer Koonookarra was used during these Easter camps for dredging marine life under his leadership. Field Naturalists, under his direction carried out some of the first scientific dredging along Tasmania’s coastline.His ten year involvement with the Field Naturalists culminated in his election as Chairman in 1918, and again the following year’

As well as the Field Naturalists Flynn developed other important links with the wider Tasmanian scientific community outside the University. He was first elected to the Council of the Royal Society in 1911 …[and] through [this] position became a Trustee of the Tasmanian Museum and Botanical Gardens in 1911. Flynn took on the work of curator and was active in supporting its functions and adding to the collection.’

tasmanian field naturalists 1909

Tasmanian Field Naturalists - Easter camp-out April 1909
Photograph of group of 84 Tasmanian Field Naturalists with T. T. Flynn on the far left (see detail below) (Sir William Crowther Collection, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office).


TT flynn
T.T.Flynn (detail)

(Right) Tasmanian Field Naturalists Club illuminated address
Theodore Thomson Flynn was one of the signatories to this illuminated address presented to Leonard Rodway by the Tasmanian Field Naturalists Club, congratulating him on being appointed a Companion of St Michael and St George in 1917 and expressing the club’s gratitude for his work and support.

leonard rodway
Leonard Rodway

illuminated address

dredging expedition 1913 (left) ‘Field Naturalists, under the direction of Professor TT Flynn of the University of Tasmania, carried out some of the first scientific dredging along Tasmania’s coastline. The only man who can be identified is the photographer Beattie, a member of the Club who took many photographs of their activities.’ The Companion to Tasmanian History - online version.


(Right) Tasmanian Field Naturalists dredging expedition 1913
W. Lewis May [centre] in the battered hat, & Professor T.T. Flynn on the right at Safety Cove onboard the Koomela in 1913. (Private Collection - May family).

Tasmanian field naturalists 1913

Thylacine skull (Thylacinus cynocephalus)
Flynn held the post of honorary curator of the Tasmanian Museum from 1912-1918. The Museum has in its collection a complete thylacine skeleton collected by T.T Flynn in 1919. He was one of the first advocates for the protection of the thylacine. In 1914 he suggested that some should be captured and placed on an island, a strategy being considered today as a means of protecting the Tasmanian devil. (S. Jones - School of Zoology)

thylacine skull
Thylacine skull collected by T.T Flynn in 1919
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery collection.

Birth of the Kangaroo by T. T. Flynn, 1928
‘Flynn became famous for his work on the embryology of marsupials and echidnas. He became determined to educate the public that kangaroos were not born on the nipple and went so far as to publish a Workers Educational Association (then a forerunner of Adult Education) booklet on the Birth of the Kangaroo. I fear that it was not too widely read because around 1950 the locals in Ouse still adhered to the incorrect view.’ (E. Guiler - School of Zoology)

Bettong (Bettongia gaimardi)
‘Professor T.T. Flynn published a paper on the reproduction of the Tasmanian bettong that summarized much of his work over the previous 10-15 year period in 1930. His infamous son the film-star Errol Flynn, often assisted his father in capturing bettongs.

‘When school finished, I raced home to be at his side, to hurry out into the back yard, where we had cages of specimens of rare animals…Through Father’s activity I made my first venture into commerce. He bought all the kangaroo rats [bettongs] he could get hold of for Hobart University. I learned to set box traps in the hills of near-by Mount Wellington. He paid a shilling a head.’ (Errol Flynn, My Wicked, Wicked Ways). No further scientific work was carried out (on the Bettong) for the nearly 50 years or so until I started my studies in the late 1970s.’ (Randy Rose, School of Zoology)

bettong skeleton
Bettong skeleton (Bettongia gaimardi)
bettong young
Bettong - Bettongia gaimardi
Specimen of baby on pouch from School of Zoology collection.
( NB : pouch specimen says cuniculus)

Bettong - Bettongia gaimardi
Furry mount from School of Zoology collection.

Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
Flynn’s first paper on the anatomy of the Tasmanian devil was written in 1910 from a specimen given to him by Colonel JEC Lord. In the introduction to the paper he indicated that he had intended to delay publication until he could dissect a number of specimens but had found that the species was already so scarce that further specimens could not be obtained. In these circumstances Mrs. Roberts’ Beaumaris Zoo in Battery Point was a most valuable facility. In 1910 she had been asked by the Director of the Sydney Zoo to try and obtain specimens of the devil and the thylacine for the London Zoological Society. This prompted her to begin holding these animals in her zoo and to try to breed the devil in captivity’.

‘Flynn was particularly interested in discovering all he could about Tasmanian marsupials, as he feared for their survival. After he left Tasmania the devil population grew quickly but while he was at the University they were quite scarce’.

tasmanian devil
Tasmanian Devil skeleton (Sarcophilus harrisii)
tasmanian devil
Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)

Specimens and scientific papers
Flynn is considered to be one of the pioneers of research into the reproductive biology of marsupials and monotremes. He published an important work on the early cleavage of the monotreme egg, and was awarded a DSc in 1921 for his work on the embryology of marsupials. His interest in the placental structure of blue-tongued lizards is echoed today by the School of Zoology’s strong research focus on the ecology and evolution of viviparous lizards. 

In addition, he published an eclectic series of papers on the fauna of Tasmania, including sea spiders (Pycnogonida) and a freshwater sponge. Flynn also described a fossil whale from Fossil Bluff on the north coast of Tasmania. The fossil Prosqualodon davidis is c.23 million years old, and is held in the collection of the School of Earth Sciences, UTAS.

Flynn’s classic paper on the yolk sac and allantoic placenta in the barred bandicoot which appeared in the prestigious Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science in 1923 was awarded the University Medal when presented to the University of Sydney as a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Science.

theodore thomson flynn 1923
Professor T.T. Flynn
Illustrated Tasmanian Mail,
19 April 1923


Henry Crouch brass binocular microscope (c.1890) and microscope slides prepared by T.T. Flynn from the School of Zoology.

Lantern slides from T.T. Flynn’s collection brought back from Queen’s University, Belfast by Eric Guiler.

Detail of Henry Crouch brass binocular microscope



university staff c.1924
University staff and students with car
Group of staff and students at the University on the Domain c. 1924. Professor Flynn is in the back row on the far left. (Tasmaniana Library, Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office) - enlarge

students and staff and car pump c.1924
The brass car pump belonged to the Departmental car shown in this photo. (Pump now held in the School of Zoology)
University staff group photo 1924
University staff, 1924; (l. to r., top) Dr. A.L. McAulay, H.P. Tuck, C. Malthus, Prof. J.B. Brigden, J.A. Johnson, Prof. Burn, Prof. D. Copland,; (centre) A.R. Hewer, P.L. Griffiths, Lt-Col. Thomas (Registrar), E.A. Counsel, C.C. Dudley, G.S. King, L. Rodway; (bottom) Prof. R. Dunbabin, Prof. Williams, W.J.T. Stops (Vice-Chancellor), Sir Elliott Lewis (Chancellor), Prof. McDougall, Prof. T.T. Flynn, Prof. Lucas
 University staff 1924
flynn tarn (left) Flynn Tarn
Photograph by Fred Smithies of Lake Rodway and Flynn’s Tarn (named after Professor Flynn and Leonard Rodway, two of the most important biologist of their time) from the summit of Cradle Mountain. (Archives Office of Tasmania)
macquarie island
Flynn Lake, Macquarie Island,
named after T. T. Flynn - enlarge map

Aurora Expedition to Macquarie Island

In May 1910 at a meeting of the Royal Society Flynn seconded the motion to set up a committee to promote Sir Douglas Mawson’s Antarctic expedition. He and Mawson had been at school and University together in Sydney. In November 1912, Flynn joined Mawson’s Australian Antarctic Expedition as the biologist in charge for the second summer research cruise on the S. Y. Aurora.

The decision to accept the leadership of this program was somewhat rash. His experience in marine research was limited and confined to the inshore waters off the east coast of Tasmania and Sydney. He could not have been prepared for the tumultuous seas between Macquarie Island and Tasmania in a vessel not built or crewed for the task, but having found his sea legs he began the dredging program.
In June 1913 he addressed the Royal Society on the results of the five weeks of dredging and illustrated it with lantern slides. Flynn’s Antarctic connection is commemorated in the name of Flynn Lake on the west coast of Macquarie Island.

He developed a considerable interest in marine science, and became a strong advocate for science-based development of fisheries in Tasmania and at the national level. He undertook a review of the Tasmanian fishing industry, and proposed some priority scientific projects, including comprehensive studies of the biology of the oyster and the crayfish, to underpin effective fisheries management.

In 1931, the Ralston Trustees cut their funding to support only a lectureship. Flynn left the university to take up a chair at the Queen’s University, Belfast, where he continued scientific research for anther ten years before retiring in 1948, that event being noted in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, Vol 162, July 24th 1948.

tt flynn
T.T. Flynn, Queen's University Belfast
TT Flynn on film set tt flynn and marelle flynn
T.T. Flynn and his wife Marelle taking friends from St Albans to visit Errol’s film set. Detail: T.T. Flynn and his wife Marelle
errol flynn and tt flynn
Errol Flynn and T.T.Flynn
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T.T. Flynn on Errol's yacht 'The Zaca', 1952

Impressions of T. T. Flynn

‘T.T. was full of pranks and at one staff dance he produced a small marsupial out of his pocket much to the consternation of all. Something must have gone wrong with the joke when he appeared with a black eye’ (Eric Guiler - School of Zoology)

‘Flynn established a research reputation for zoology in Tasmania and the Department has always flourished in this field. He was a flamboyant teacher in a time when the University had several such. He stands tall among his successors being a stronger character than most of them. In some respects he was careless of administration but in those days the running of the University was largely left to the Heads.’ (Eric Guiler)

‘The rapport was with my father. He looked Irish. He had red, bushy eyebrows, black hair; he was lean, angular, full of charm, good will, and a certain professorial quietness. He spoke with a clipped British accent, tinged with touches of Irish brogue.’ (Errol Flynn, My Wicked, Wicked Ways)

‘Vernon (VV) Hickman, who succeeded Flynn in 1932, was a student in the early years and remembers Flynn as an excellent teacher who took a great interest in his students: at least those who showed an interest in the subject.’ (Anthony Harrison, ‘Climbing to the top: T.T. Flynn in Tasmania, 1909-1931’ )

‘Theo Flynn was tall, slim, broad shouldered and blue-eyed; softly spoken, charming and witty. He was very industrious but also gregarious and friendly, enjoying dancing and tennis, as well as his academic interests’...Guiler knew him as a ‘very powerful personality full of drive and energy that led him into many adventures, credible or otherwise’.(E. Guiler, Sunday Tasmanian, 8 July 1990).

Transcription & letter (pictured below) about T. T. Flynn to Professor Eric Guiler from Louis Bisdee, July 1990

letter letter2

Kelvin Grove,  
Melton Mowbray,  
Tasmania 7030.  

Dear Professor,
Having read the article in the Sunday Tasmanian (8th July 1990) on the life of Professor Flynn it has prompted me to write to you with a little information about the Professor. He boarded at the same guest house where I was, Pressland House in Melville Street, Hobart. That was in 19?1. He was at the Tasmanian University just above the Hobart Railway Station on the Domain. He was a very fine well groomed man. Always wore a black bowler hat. He never ever mentioned his wife but he was always greatly admired by the ladies of Hobart. He seemed to take great pride in himself and led a good life. He used to tell me about his son Erroll. Apparently he was often a great worry to his father. Father never knew where he was or what he did but he always had an appointment to meet outside McKeans boot shop in Elizabeth Street (now the Mall) at twenty minutes past eight. They had very little to say to each other except of course Erroll was always ‘broke’. The meeting took place every Friday evening. He thought a lot of his son, so I guess Erroll was the cause of father having difficulty in meeting his debts. I thought this information might be of interest to you. At the time I was working in a wholesale grocery business in Hobart. Times were bad: right in the big Depression.

Yours faithfully,
Louis F. Bisdee

Pressland House
‘Pressland House’, Melville Street, Hobart as it appeared in an advertisement in Walsh’s Almanac of 1899. This is where Errol and his father boarded in the 1920s when Errol attended Hobart High School.

The Geology Department’s acquisition of the remains of Prosqualodon davidis Flynn 
Prosqualodon davidis was described in 1923 by Prof. Flynn who was Professor of Zoology at the University of Tasmania.  When originally found in Miocene sediments at Fossil Bluff, it was virtually complete.  After description, it was held in the Zoology Department collections in the old part of the Sandy Bay campus, near the sports oval.  It was one of the best-preserved squalodont whales known.  There is some confusion about the name (davidi or davidis) but I believe the latter is correct. 

In approximately 1966, I was visiting Dr John Hickman of the Zoology Department and passing through a roofed, but otherwise open, space when I noticed what appeared to be bone from Fossil Bluff.  I was told that the fragments were the remains of the specimen studied by Flynn.  I was horrified by both the condition of the specimen and lack of care.  The bone was breaking up under the influence of varying temperature and humidity.  Pyrite oxidation probably was the cause. I came back to the Geology Department, reported to Prof. Carey, and we quickly arranged for the remains to be brought here and placed in our vault where better (if not perfect) care could be taken of the specimen. 

When brought over, we found that most of the original specimen did not exist and we were told that much of it probably had been taken to the rubbish tip at some stage.  More horror! Dr John Cosgriff, a vertebrate palaeontologist, was here at the time and took some steps to improve the condition of what was retrieved but the remains are a sorry remnant of the original. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery has an excellent cast of the skull and that is worthy of study. 
[Notes by Patrick G. Quilty AM, Honorary Research Professor, 17 June 2004].

Flynn, T.T., 'Squalodont Remains from the Tertiary Strata of Tasmania'
from Nature, November 25th, 1929
whale jaw fossil
T.T. Flynn' s photograph of jawbone of fossil whale
Prosqualodon davidis

Whale fossil specimen

Prosqualodon is a whale, not a dolphin.  It is referred to as a primitive toothed whale probably with lifestyle and body shape very similar to a modern dolphin - an example of convergent evolution. It is a squalodont with triangular, sharklike serrated teeth and thus unlike modern dolphins although modern dolphins probably evolved from this group. [Patrick G. Quilty].


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