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He was born in Leicester. He was the eldest son of Samuel Kirby, who was a banker. He was educated privately, and became interested in butterflies and moths at an early age. The family moved to Brighton, where he became acquainted with Henry Cooke, Frederick Merrifield and J. N. Winter. He published the Manual of European Butterflies in 1862.
In 1879 Kirby joined the staff of the British Museum (Natural History) as an assistant, after the death of Frederick Smith. He published a number of catalogues, as well as Rhopalocera Exotica (1887-1897) and an Elementary Text-book of Entomology. He also did important work on orthopteroid insects including a three volume Catalogue of all known species (1904, 1906, 1910). He retired in 1909.
Kirby had a wide range of interests, knew many languages and fully translated Finland's national epic, the Kalevala, from Finnish into English. Kirby's translation, which carefully reproduces the Kalevala meter, was a major influence on the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, who first read it in his teens. Kirby also provided many footnotes to Sir Richard Burton's translation of the Arabian Nights.
A short biography of Kirby, with particular reference to his work on phasmids, was published by P. E. Bragg in 2007.
Kirby was an advocate of theistic evolution. In his book Evolution and Natural Theology he argued that evolution and theism are compatible. He noted that creationism was scientifically untenable and refuted its arguments. He viewed nature as a "vast self-adjusting machine".
An illustration of Thopha saccata appearing in Kirby's 1885 Elementary text-book of entomology