Ornithologist, archaeologist and sportsman, Whitaker is mainly known for his discovery of the Phoenician city of Motya, his work on the birds of Tunisia, and for being involved in the foundation of the Sicilian football club U.S. Città di Palermo.
The Whitakers were a wealthy 19th-century family from West Yorkshire who developed the fortified wine industry in Marsala, Sicily. Joseph Isaac inherited vast vineyards and his great grandfather Ingham’s banking empire. Choosing Palermo over the more provincial Marsala, he built the Villa Malfitano, an Italian Art Nouveau mansion near the Zisa Castle after his marriage to Tina Scalia, daughter of General Alfonso Scalia -who landed in Sicily with Giuseppe Garibaldi during the years leading up to the Risorgimento.
The Whitakers’ house was the venue for lavish parties attended by British and Italian royalty. Tina Whitaker knew Richard Wagner, Benito Mussolini, the Kaiser and Edward VII, Empress Eugenie and Queen Mary. She unwittingly found herself in a circle involved in the Irish Crown Jewels scandal. Joseph Isaac himself was founder and President of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Palermo and first president of the U.S. Città di Palermo football team.
In 1891 already a very keen ornithologist, Whitaker joined the British Ornithologists’ Union. For the following ten years, he travelled to Tunisia keeping notebooks on the natural history of the birds as well as other fauna and flora of Tunisia. His Tunisian bird and bird nest and egg collection was housed in a villa in the grounds of his home “Malfitano” alongside a very complete collection of Sicilian birds and collections made on his behalf by Edward Dobson in Morocco. Some of Whitaker’s collection of Tunisian birds are in the Natural History Museum of London. The Sicilian birds are divided between the Royal Scottish Museum (bird skins) and the Ulster Museum (bird mounts, eggs and nests). Whitaker devoted the last years of his life to archaeology purchasing the island of Motya near Trapani, the site of a Phoenician town founded in the eighth century BC.