William L. Distant was educated privately and developed a strong interest in natural history, particularly entomology. In 1867 he visited the Malay Peninsula with his father, who was a whaler, and collected natural history specimens. Some 15 years later he published an authoritative two volume work, Rhopalocera malayana... on the butterflies of the Malay Peninsula (London, 1882-1886). By this time he was becoming an established and respected naturalist. He served as secretary of the Anthropological Institute (1878-1881) and as secretary (1878-1880) and vice-president (1881 and 1900) of the Entomological Society; was a member of the Societe Entomologique de France; and edited the journal Zoologist from 1897 to 1915.
Distant first visited South Africa in 1890-1891. In June 1890 he was in Cape Town with his friend R. Trimen* at the South African Museum. They remained in contact, for in 1892 Trimen thanked him in the museum's annual report as a helpful expert on the Hemiptera, and in 1899 Distant sent the museum one of his papers. From Cape Town he went on to the Transvaal to pursue his work on tanning and indulge his interest in natural history in his spare time. On his return to England he published an account of his observations and collecting activities, A naturalist in the Transvaal (London, 1892). The book contained much information on particularly the birds, insects and other arthropods of the Transvaal, including descriptions of some new insect species, a record of the specimens he collected (mostly insects from the Pretoria region), an excellent description of the Magwamba tribe and the Zoutpansberg, and descriptions of some of the zoological specimens by specialists, including G.A. Boulenger*.
Distant visited the Transvaal again from 1894 to 1898, partly for business reasons. In March 1896 he wrote a letter to The Scientific African from Pretoria on his unsuccessful efforts to keep a live leguan. His interest in natural history, including birds, was expressed in two articles on "Zoological rambles in and around the Transvaal", which he wrote for The Zoologist (1897, 1898). However, his main interest was in entomology. He was the first to make an intensive study of the insects of the Transvaal, particularly the Hemiptera-Homoptera (and more particularly the Cicadidae), and collected numerous specimens. During the first few years after his return to England he published a number of papers on his collections in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History. These dealt with his collection of moths (43 new species) in three papers (1897, 1898, 1899); a new species of Hemiptera from Delagoa Bay (1898); Hemiptera from the Transvaal and elsewhere in Africa (1898); two new species of South African Homoptera (1899); and two papers on some of the Coleoptera (3 new species) and Lepidoptera (9 new species; 1899). One of the species he described in "On two undescribed cicadas from the Transvaal" (1899), which he last collected in 1906, was not found again until 1989 and is restricted to the eastern Transvaal (Malherbe et al, 2004). In South Africa he contributed three papers on the Hemiptera to the Annals of the South African Museum, in 1902 (Vol. 2, Part 9), 1903 (Vol. 3, Part 2), and 1911 (Vol. 10, Part 2); a description of two new species of Cicadidae to the Records of the Albany Museum (1907, Vol. 2(2), pp. 176-177); and a paper on "Undiscribed genera and species of South African Rhynchota [i.e., Hemiptera]" to the Transactions of the South African Philosophical Society (1905-1907, Vol. 16, pp. 413-418). Many of his insects were furthermore described in his Insecta Transvaaliensia: a contribution to a knowledge of the entomology of South Africa, which included contributions by several European experts. The first volume of this work was published in twelve parts between 1900 and 1911. It contained 27 beautifully executed (and expensive) plates, some of them coloured, for Distant relied more on illustrations than on descriptions. Unfortunately a lack of funds prevented him from continuing the work, as his efforts to obtain financial support for the publication of the book from the governments of the South African Republic (during 1896-1899) and the Transvaal Colony (from 1903) met with little success. His collection of some 50 000 specimens was bought by the British Museum (Natural History), where he worked part-time from 1899 to 1920.
Some of the insects that Distant collected in the Transvaal were described by various experts in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History: Moths collected at Pretoria (6 new species) by Sir G.F. Hampson (1898); the Rutelid beetles (6 new species), by G.J. Arrow (1899); the flies (10 new species) by Miss G. Ricardo (1900); and the Orthoptera (16 new species) in three papers by W.F. Kirby (1899-1900).
Other notable works by Distant are his descriptions of the Heteroptera and Homoptera in F. Godman and O. Salvin's De Biologia Centrali-Americana (1879); his Monograph on the Oriental Cicadidae (1889-1892); an extensive contribution on the Hemiptera in W.T. Blandford's Fauna of British India (1902-1918); and A synonymic catalogue of Homoptera. Part 1. Cicadidae (1906). In addition to his papers relating to South Africa, he published many others on the Lepidoptera, Coleoptera and Hemiptera, and some on anthropological subjects. One of his contributions to The Zoologist in 1901, on "Animal sense perceptions", was important for the theory of mimicry.