Duncan Merrilees was born in 1922 and spent his childhood years in Sydney. He graduated from the University of Sydney in 1942 with a degree in chemistry. Like many chemists in Australia during WWII, his services were put to use in industry and he was transferred to Tasmania were he worked at a paper mill. At this time he had already developed a fascination for geology and in particular the chemistry and physics of igneous rocks. After the war Duncan pursued a career as science teacher as a means of supporting himself and his wife. For medical reasons, his appointment as teacher was later terminated. After a brief employment on a soil conservation research station, he successfully applied for a position as lecturer in “scientific literacy” at the University of Western Australia. This position became a joint appointment with the Western Australian Museum in 1960 when he was appointed curator of palaeontology (with responsibility also for the large mineral and meteorite collections). There was however no longer a perceived need for scientific literacy courses at UWA and Duncan was soon seconded, on a full-time employment basis, to the museum.
Duncan worked for the Western Australian Museum for two decades from 1960 to 1979. During the 1960s he built up the palaeontological collections, cataloguing tens of thousands of specimens. He pioneered means of identifying bones, including building a mammal skeletal reference collection that is still is use today. At the same time he was doing a Ph.D., using the Museum collections, on the causes of extinction of the Australian megafauna, or “large extinct marsupials” as Duncan always called them. The completion of his Ph.D. coincided with his presidency of the Royal Society of Western Australia in 1966-67, and he took the opportunity to summarize his work in his presidential address, which he entitled “Man the destroyer: late Quaternary changes in the Australian marsupial fauna”. During the 1970s he worked mainly on a major project with Charlie Dortch, curator of archaeology, on Devils Lair, a very important Pleistocene archaeological site in southwestern W.A.
During his time at the W.A. Museum, Duncan produced some 24 scientific papers, including descriptions of two new species of Sthenurus (an extinct group of short-faced browsing kangaroos). He also produced another six more popular articles. Although he directed the Devils Lair research and was principally responsible for writing both of the palaeontological papers, he generously insisted that the authors’ names should be in alphabetical order, giving the first authorships to younger colleagues. He was a good scientist who always resisted the temptation to over-interpret his data, and, as a result, his ideas and conclusions have stood the test of time far better than those of some of his more flamboyant colleagues.
Always of spare frame, and apparently stern of countenance, he had a ready smile and laugh with a well-developed sense of humour. He was skeptical of authority and dogma and held liberal, even radical, views. Duncan was a man of wide interests, with a love of music. His cultural activities included reading plays with the team around the camp fire during field work at Devils Lair.
He cherished a life-long ambition to be a farmer. While working at the W.A. Museum he founded a conservation farming group, which bought partially cleared properties and maintained both their bush and farming qualities. Once he retired he took up farming for the rest of his life, living at Jardee, near Manjimup. He did, however, retain an interest in palaeontology, and in particular advances on the causes of the extinction of the megafauna, and always welcomed visits from palaeontologists.