Arthur Wilson Stelfox

Arthur Wilson Stelfox (1883-1972)

(Adapted from an appreciation published in The Irish Naturalists' Journal in January 1973, with several contributing authors)


Arthur Wilson Stelfox was born in Belfast in 1883, the youngest child of James Stelfox, M.I.C.E., from Cheshire, and his wife Jennie Mcllwaine, daughter of the Rector of St. George's, Belfast. He was educated at Campbell College, Belfast, and trained as an architect in London and in Belfast, obtaining his A.R.I.B.A. in 1909. His father had joined the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club in 1882 and members of the Club were constant visitors in the Stelfox home. 

He was appointed to the National Museum in Dublin in 1920 and he attended a course in the College of Science and then commenced work in the Museum being directed to work on the Hymenoptera. For some years he worked under Scharff, Nichols and Halbert but on their retirement (c 1924), Stelfox (in the position of Assistant Naturalist) and a technical assistant, were left in sole charge of the zoological collections of the Museum. So well did they serve the Museum that the general public never became aware of the then existing state of affairs. Yet for his services during his tenure of office (28 years), Stelfox never received any recognition by way of promotion from a position well below his competence, although his expertise was soon acknowledged by a wide range of specialists abroad. In 1924 he published "A List of the Hymenoptera Aculeata (sensu lato) of Ireland" in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (37B: 201). This raised the number of known Irish species from 122 to 175, and in subsequent publications he raised this still further. Examination of the List shows how widely he collected over the greater part of Ireland.

In 1947 A. W. Stelfox was elected to an Honorary Fellowship of the Linnean Society ( or A.L.S. Associate of the Linnean Society as the honour was termed at that time). This recognition of his scholarship was awarded without his prior knowledge, for he had always shunned publicity and had earlier refused offers of two Honorary Doctorates. In 1948 Stelfox retired from the Museum service, but continued to live in Dublin until 1956 when he returned to Northern Ireland, building a new house at Newcastle, Co. Down, at the foot of the Mourne Mountains. 

Stelfox's wonderful Hymenoptera collection of some 90,000 meticulously mounted and labelled specimens (covering all groups of Hymenoptera), including many types, was controversially presented to the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC [together with the relevant notebooks]. This was done because he felt that there was a better guarantee that the collection would be studied. It was, however, a great disappointment to British and Irish Hymenopterists. Stelfox was always willing to help others and it is not surprising that all his activities left little time for publishing the results of his own research on Hymenoptera, much of which remains in note form. Although he published less than some, his personal influence was immense, particularly with the younger generation. There must have been few students of Hymenoptera who had not been helped by him at some time or another. Help frequently consisted not only of advice, but often also of gifts of material. There was a constant flow of entomologists and botanists to his home in Dublin and later in Newcastle where they were always sure of a kindly welcome from Mr and Mrs Stelfox. Stelfox was a great stickler for sound principles in scientific work and was very impatient over careless work. He was intensely loyal to any cause he considered right, an attitude which was sometimes misunderstood. At heart a very kindly man, his manner was sometimes a little abrupt, a feature which reflected a certain shyness.


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