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Leichhardt: the man, the mystery, the science, the history symposium

The disappearance of explorer Ludwig Leichhardt's third expedition in 1848 has been one of the great mysteries of Australian exploration.

The first object with a corroborated provenance from the journey, a small brass nameplate marked 'LUDWIG LEICHHARDT 1848', was acquired by the National Museum of Australia in 2006.

On 15 June 2007 the Museum held a symposium to revisit Leichhardt's contribution to Australian exploration, science and history.

Speakers proposed new theories about the fate of Leichhardt's attempted east-west crossing, examined his earlier work and challenged the perception that he was a failed explorer.

More on the Leichhardt nameplate

Overview of the National Museum of Australia's purchase of the Leichhardt nameplate

Matthew Higgins, National Museum of Australia


The National Museum of Australia acquired a small brass nameplate marked 'LUDWIG LEICHHARDT 1848' in November 2006.

This plate is the first object with a corroborated provenance from Ludwig Leichhardt's 1848 expedition, where the German explorer set out to attempt an east-west crossing of Australia.

Leichhardt and his party disappeared and the earlier failure to find any definite artefacts from the expedition has been one of the great mysteries of Australian exploration.

A team of conservators, scientists, curators and historians haved helped to establish the plate's authenticity.


Matthew Higgins has been working professionally as an historian for more than 25 years. He is the Senior Curator at the National Museum in Canberra who worked on the authentification and acquisition of the Leichhardt nameplate.

Matthew has been with the National Museum since 2004. He previously worked at the Australian War Memorial, the Australian Heritage Commission, Department of Environment and Heritage and as a freelance historical consultant.

In 2007 Matthew joined the staff of the National Museum's Centre for Historical Research, to work on a book on the history of the Australian Capital Territory's high country.

'He nearly made it': Leichhardt's 'grand plan' of 1848

Dr Darrell Lewis, Australian National University


In 1848 Ludwig Leichhardt set out to cross the continent from Moreton Bay in Queensland to the Swan River in Western Australia.

Leichhardt and his seven companions, their equipment and livestock were never seen again, and the mystery of his fate has been the subject of innumerable theories over the past 150 years.

This paper reveals what Leichhardt himself said about his intended route and his reasons for taking this path, and presents evidence that he followed his plan and managed to cross at least two thirds of the continent.


Dr Darrell Lewis is an archaeologist and historian who has worked extensively in the Northern Territory and other outback areas for more than 35 years.

He has written numerous books and papers on Aboriginal rock art and material culture, European explorers, settler history and cattle station people and technology.

In 2007 Darrell was appointed as a Research Fellow at the National Museum of Australia's Centre for Historical Research.

Scientific analysis of the Leichhardt plate

David Hallam, National Museum of Australia


The National Museum acquired a nameplate from Ludwig Leichhardt's 1848 attempt to cross Australia.

This paper looks at the analysis of the metal and corrosion products from that nameplate by various non-destructive techniques including scanning clectronic microscopy, Raman testing and X-ray flourescence.

By analysis of the object we have found information on the technology of production, methods of fabrication, evidence of the environment it has been in and evidence of stresses it has been under.

Through application of appropriate analytical techniques the process has yielded a marriage of historical record and scientific analysis which has created a remarkable provenance of the object.


David Hallam is the Senior Conservator of Collections and Research at the National Museum in Canberra.

His initiatives over the past three decades in positions at the Australian War Memorial, the Queensland Museum, and the National Museum have strongly influenced the way museums approach the conservation of functional objects.

David's contributions were recognised by his appointment as a Woodrow Wilson International Fellow at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in 1989 and as a visiting fellow at the Research School of Chemistry at the Australian National University.

Leichhardt: the motivations of an explorer

Professor Rod Home, University of Melbourne


What kind of a man was Leichhardt, and what drove him to venture into the Australian unknown? He was inspired, I shall argue, not by a romantic dream but by hard-headed scientific objectives, a wide-ranging but well-defined research agenda securely grounded on an extensive prior training in the relevant fields of science.


Rod Home was professor of history and philosophy of science at the University of Melbourne from 1975 to 2003, and is now emeritus professor.

He has published widely on the history of physics, especially in the eighteenth century, and on the history of Australian science.

Rod is editor of the journal Historical Records of Australian Science. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and a member of the International Academy of the History of Science.

Leichhardt as scientist and diarist

Dr Tom Darragh, Museum Victoria


Given Ludwig Leichhardt's scientific education and studies undertaken in England and France, he was one of the most highly qualified scientists to come to Australia when he arrived in Sydney in 1842.

He immediately set about collecting plants and geological specimens, as well as recording scientific observations in his diaries. These observations included detailed descriptions of plants and their occurrence, and of the geology of the regions traversed using the latest botanical and geological terminology, much of which is still in use at the present time. The observations were supplemented with sketches and geological sections.


Dr Tom Darragh is a palaeontologist who worked for 36 years at the National Museum of Victoria, now Museum Victoria.

He retired in 2001 and continues his interests in palaeontology (fossil molluscs) as well as now having time to pursue interests in the history of engraving and lithography, and the Germans in Victoria.

Tom is on the editorial committee of the Ferdinand von Mueller correspondence project and was transcribing and translating German letters as part of that project at the time of the Leichhardt symposium.

At the request of Dr Rod Fencham of the Queensland Herbarium, he has translated four diaries of Ludwig Leichhardt. At the time of the Leichhardt symposium, was working with Dr Fencham on editing the diaries for publication.

Ludwig Leichhardt: a loss to science and Australian culture

Professor Henry Nix, Australian National University


Ludwig Leichhardt was a contemporary of Alexander von Humboldt, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace and Ferdinand von Mueller.

All made significant explorations as young men and all, but for Leichhardt, lived long enough to synthesise and publish the results of their observations.

There is enough evidence in Leichhardt's letters, papers, diaries and journals to suggest that, had he lived, he could have joined that august company of peers.


Emeritus Professor Henry Nix, AO, is a visiting fellow at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University.

He has a lifelong interest in Ludwig Leichhardt and the naturalist and explorer's contribution to science.

Deepening the mystery: the 1938 South Australian government Leichhardt search party

Dr Philip Jones, South Australian Museum


In August 1938 Adelaide newspapers reported the discovery of seven or eight skeletons of white men on the south-eastern fringe of the Simpson Desert.

With remarkable rapidity, the South Australian government equipped and mounted an investigative expedition.

The results were intriguing. The fragments of human bone, pre-Leichhardt coins and shoe leather found at the remote site have still not been satisfactorily explained.

This paper re-examines this evidence, and situates the expedition within the history of conjecture and speculation which suggested a Simpson Desert grave for Leichhardt's expedition.


Dr Philip Jones is a curator at the South Australian Museum's Department of Anthropology. He has a strong interest in Aboriginal material culture and in the history of Australian frontiers.

Philip is also a member of the editorial board for the National Museum of Australia's online scholarly journal, reCollections.

'A very tolerable addition': Leichhardt's mapping of the Balonnne River

Dr Martin Woods, National Library of Australia


There are several famous maps of Leichhardt's expeditions, but surprisingly few known to be drawn by the explorer.

Recently the National Library of Australia acquired a manuscript map, drawn and dedicated by Leichhardt to a squatter, Arthur Hodgson, owner of 'Eton Vale', the centre of Darling Downs society.

The map was not of his expedition from Moreton Bay to Port Essington, or the failed Swan River attempts, but outlined his examination of the course of the Balonne and Condamine rivers and the country between Thomas Mitchell's 1846 route and his own.

Drawn just prior to the second Swan River expedition, the map was bread and butter cartography, raising hopes of an expanded Darling Downs while funding Leichhardt's own final westward journey.


Dr Martin Woods is curator of maps at the National Library of Australia.

Martin has over 20 years' experience as a curator and information manager in Australian museums and libraries, and joined the National Library in 2004.

His current project is the digitisation of the Library's large assemblage of rare maps and atlases, from the earliest European charting of Terra Australis, to its unique collection of Australian town plans.

Leichhardt in Australian literature

Dr Susan Martin, La Trobe University


Ludwig Leichhardt fascinated Australian writers from a very early period.

His most famous representation in more recent Australian literature is Patrick White's Voss, but Leichhardt's disappearance inspired elegiac poems from 1845 onwards, and a number of Lemurian novels in the 1890s, which posited various, sometimes bizarre, encounters with survivors or other traces of the explorer's party.


Dr Susan K Martin is a senior lecturer in English at La Trobe University.

She has published widely on nineteenth and twentieth-century Australian literature.



Panel discussion

Alice Springs historian Dick Kimber proposes an alternative theory for the fate of the Leichhardt expedition in an open discussion with earlier symposium speakers:

  • Matthew Higgins
  • Dr Darrell Lewis
  • David Hallam
  • Professor Rod Home
  • Dr Tom Darragh
  • Professor Henry Nix
  • Dr Philip Jones
  • Dr Martin Woods
  • Dr Susan Martin