Robert Alexander Falla was born in Palmerston North on 21 July 1901, the son of George Falla, a railway clerk, and his wife, Elizabeth Kirk. The family shifted frequently, Falla's younger years being spent in Hawera, Masterton and Invercargill. Falla freely acknowledged that his interest in natural history was stimulated by naturalists such as Alfred Philpott while he was at primary school in Invercargill. He earned a Junior National Scholarship in 1915 and attended Auckland Grammar School, from where he matriculated in 1918.
Falla's childhood ambition was to be a seafarer, and although much of his career was to be associated with the sea and its inhabitants, his ambition was not to be fulfilled. After leaving school he worked at a few short-term jobs, including a brief spell as a deckhand on a trawler. After failing to obtain a place on a cadet training course with the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, he was eventually appointed as a junior shipping clerk with Thomas Cook and Son, where he remained for two years. When he learned that this position could never lead to a career at sea he resigned.
As Falla's interest in birds developed he realised that a career in zoology would require academic qualifications. He had begun part-time studies in science subjects at Auckland University College, and in 1921 he took up a teaching bursary at Auckland Training College. He was able to continue courses at the university but was allowed to take only arts subjects. He graduated BA in 1924 with a Senior Scholarship in education and served two years as a primary school teacher. In 1925 he was appointed a relieving lecturer in general science at the training college, a position made permanent the following year. In 1927 he graduated MA with a thesis on the teaching of nature study and biology in New Zealand schools. He married Elayne Mary (Molly) Burton at Te Aroha on 18 May 1928.
From 1922 onwards Robert Falla had used his weekends and holidays to carry out field work, particularly in the Hauraki Gulf, Northland and the Bay of Plenty, and his abilities and interests were coming to the attention of local biologists. The Danish Dana expedition visited New Zealand in the summer of 1928–29 and Falla was invited to join it for three weeks off the east coast; it provided an important first-hand experience of international science. On his return he joined the honorary staff of the newly opened Auckland War Memorial Museum. In 1929 he was appointed assistant zoologist to the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) under the leadership of Sir Douglas Mawson. The expedition vessel, Discovery, cruised in the southern ocean and made landings at Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard and Macquarie Islands and along the margins of Antarctica. During two summer seasons Falla was responsible for all ornithological investigations, and assisted with the routine gathering of biological information. Lengthy periods of leave were, however, not acceptable to the Department of Education and Falla resigned.
In 1931 he was appointed ornithologist and education officer at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Here, under the directorship of Gilbert Archey, and with colleagues such as A. W. B. Powell and Lucy Cranwell, Falla found an atmosphere that encouraged the pursuit of scientific knowledge, the careful publication of research, and the promulgation of knowledge and information to the public through displays, lectures and work with school classes. He developed rapidly in this environment, carrying out important field work, publishing a series of papers on birds – especially a major work based on the collections and observations of the Antarctic expedition – and developing his skills as a public lecturer. The BANZARE report, published in 1937, is still considered a classic work on the birds of the southern ocean. In 1936 he was appointed assistant director of the museum. He also took part in a major expedition to the Three Kings Islands in 1934.
In 1937 Falla became director of the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. He was able to extend his knowledge of South Island birds, often in the company of Edgar Stead, in field trips around Lake Ellesmere, the beds of the Canterbury rivers, the cliffs of Banks Peninsula, and the forests of Westland. He instigated major museum investigations of moa remains at Pyramid Valley, north of Christchurch, and of the moa hunter archaeological site at Wairau Bar.
Falla was awarded a DSc by the University of New Zealand for his work on birds. In 1939, with the aid of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, he was able to study museum developments and displays in the United States, United Kingdom and Europe. From 1944 to 1946 he was heavily involved in a campaign to raise local-body support for funding the museum.
For a short period after the commencement of the Second World War, Falla served in a naval auxiliary patrol. When coast-watching stations were established early in 1941 in the Auckland Islands and on Campbell Island, Falla was called in as an adviser. He was instrumental in having young scientists included in the personnel at each base, and set up a scientific programme; he himself served in the field. The long series of published works on the geology, zoology and botany of these islands bears witness to the value of his efforts.
In 1947 Falla was appointed director of the Dominion Museum in Wellington in succession to W. R. B. Oliver. It was a difficult period in the museum's history. In mid 1942 most of the building had been commandeered for defence purposes and the public galleries had been closed. Staff numbers had been depleted. Falla's first major task was to regain full use of the building and prepare it for its normal functions. In November 1948 the museum staff were able to occupy the whole building once more, and the public galleries were reopened in September 1949 with completely refurbished displays. These achievements owed much to Falla's leadership.
Falla regarded his time in the Dominion Museum with some disappointment, however, mainly because of the pressures caused by a great proliferation of committee duties. He also willingly gave much of his time to those seeking information on the variety of subjects in which he was expert. Yet he achieved more than he himself recognised. Falla encouraged his staff to undertake field work, and as a result scientific collections increased very rapidly. The museum's scientific publications were rejuvenated and its reputation for scholarship re-established.
Throughout his career Falla was active in many scientific and scholarly bodies. He served the Royal Society of New Zealand in various capacities from 1940 to 1965 (as president 1948–50), and was elected a fellow in 1941. At various times he was president of both the Auckland and Wellington Zoological Societies, the New Zealand Ecological Society, the New Zealand Geographical Society, the New Zealand Ship and Marine Society, the Royal Australasian Ornithologists' Union, and the Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand. He served on the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO for many years. His work was recognised with his being made a CMG in 1959 and a KBE in 1973.
Two major interests dominated Falla's later career: Antarctica and conservation. Plans for an International Geophysical Year to commence in July 1957 and British plans for a trans-antarctic expedition aroused scientific and public interest in New Zealand. Falla was among those who successfully persuaded the government to participate in both ventures and to establish a base in the Ross Sea. Falla served on the Ross Sea Committee and chaired some of the smaller executive committees, and this activity took up much of his time and energy from 1955 to 1957. More than a decade of strong representations from the Royal Society of New Zealand and major conservation groups also bore fruit when the government established the Nature Conservation Council in 1962. Falla was appointed chairman, a position he held until 1974. He led the New Zealand delegation to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.
Robert Falla retired as director of the Dominion Museum in 1966. He continued his field work and acted as adviser to the National Film Unit on natural history films. Molly Falla died on 31 May 1978; Falla was found dead at his home in Eastbourne on 24 February 1979. He was survived by two daughters and one son.
Robert Falla was impatient with the minutiae of administration and was happiest when in the field. There his reserve left him, and he became an entertaining companion. During his career in three major New Zealand museums he provided guidance and encouragement to several generations of museum staff and other scientists. He had amassed information on a wide range of topics such as marine life, birds, seals, whales, the history of shipping, Antarctica, the subantarctic islands, education and nature conservation, and this was passed on to others in many ways. He had always had a great ability to hold an audience, be it a school class or a lecture hall full of scientists. He made important contributions to ornithology and helped to awaken public interest in science and conservation.