After leaving school at 17, and enrolling in the University of Leeds, Yonge joined the Army Training Corps during 1917-1918. After the war ended, Yonge read history at the University of Oxford, before transferring to the University of Edinburgh in 1919 to study forestry and later zoology. He was a Baxter Natural Science Scholar while at Edinburgh, working as an Assistant Naturalist with the Marine Biological Association, mainly at Plymouth.
After graduation with a B.Sc. in 1922, Yonge proceeded to a PhD on the digestive system of marine invertebrates. He took his D.Sc in 1927, for his research into oysters, and then moved to Cambridge in 1927 as a Balfour student, where he was invited to join and lead the Great Barrier Reef Expedition of 1928-1929. Yonge, his wife and his colleagues in the expedition spent a year off the coast of Queensland, studying Australia's Great Barrier Reef, in particular Low Isles Reef. Their work was published in the book, A year on the Great Barrier Reef, as well as other publications.
In 1933, Yonge became Professor of Zoology at the University of Bristol, and was made Regius Professor of Zoology at the University of Glasgow in 1944. Yonge returned to Australia in 1967 to review the Great Barrier Reef with Thomas Goreau and observed some of the Belgian Scientific Expedition to the reef of the same year. He was also supportive of the Royal Society and Universities of Queensland Expedition to the northern Great Barrier Reef in 1973. He returned to Australia in 1975 to open the Australian Museum's Lizard Island Marine Station. He and Lady Phyllis returned to the Great Barrier Reef and visited Low Isles Reef in 1978.
Yonge married Dr Martha "Mattie" Lennox in 1927, a fellow student he had met during their days at Edinburgh, where she was reading medicine. They had two children, Elspeth (born 1931) and Robin (born 1934). Mattie Lennox Yonge died in 1945. In 1955, Yonge became father-in-law of the physicist Bruno Touschek due to Elspeth's marriage.
Sir Maurice Yonge died in 1986. He was survived by his second wife, Phyllis Fraser, whom he married in 1954. They had a son, Christopher (born 1955).
Yonge's extensive private marine biology library was sold to the Australian Institute of Marine Science in 1982. It is now housed at James Cook University Library. A reef off the northern coast of Queensland was also named for him.
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