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Paper presented by Dr Tom Darragh, Museum Victoria,
Leichhardt symposium, National Museum of Australia, 15 June 2007

MATTHEW HIGGINS: I would now like to introduce Dr Tom Darragh from Museum Victoria talking about Leichhardt as scientist and diarist.

TOM DARRAGH: Ludwig Leichhardt landed in Sydney on 14 February 1842 with the specific intention of studying the natural history of New Holland, as he called Australia. By virtue of his education and experiences, he would have been one of the most highly qualified scientists to have reached Australia to that time and, as Rod Home said, probably one of the ‘most qualified’ scientists in the country. His geographical achievements and his disappearance have tended to overshadow his science, though that has now been partly addressed by my colleague Rod Fencham and his co-workers, who have made a detailed analysis of the botanical observations in Leichhardt’s overland expedition account in a paper published last year, and by David Branagan of Sydney University whose assessment of Leichhardt as a geologist was published in Germany in 1994.

How Leichhardt used his scientific education in Australia is a question that cannot be answered from his published work very easily because, apart from the account of the overland expedition, most of Leichhardt’s few scientific papers are buried in obscure publications, virtually inaccessible, and so forgotten. Leichhardt kept diaries and notebooks from 1838 (from his time in Europe), but these have never been published. They have only been used by Marcel Arousseau, the editor of the Leichhardt letters, who compiled a detailed chronology of his life based on those diaries, and by Colin Roderick, who used them for his scholarly biography of Leichhardt.

The diaries have remained unpublished because of the difficulties in deciphering them; they are written in German in gothic script with numerous abbreviations, and Leichhardt’s handwriting is not easy to read. They do not cover the period when Leichhardt undertook exploration in unknown country so they have been regarded as of lesser interest to historians. I might also say that after the middle of 1844 most of the surviving Leichhardt notebooks were written in English. The Australian diaries are also highly technical, because to quote Leichhardt, ‘I’m carefully accumulating material for later use in an extensive work on New Holland.’ This work was intended to embrace meteorology, botany, zoology and geology. Thanks to the ready cooperation of the Mitchell Library where the diaries are housed, I have been able to transcribe and translate them as part of a cooperative project with Dr Rod Fencham of the Queensland Herbarium.

What do the diaries contain, and do they tell us anything about Leichhardt as a scientist? Before addressing that question, the context of the diaries needs to be mentioned. Once in Sydney, Leichhardt quickly made the acquaintance of the local naturalists, the most important of whom was William Branwhite Clarke, a clergyman, who had studied geology at Cambridge University. Clarke became a firm friend and encouraged Leichhardt in the study of the local geology and meteorology. He also met Lieutenant Robert Lynd, a keen amateur botanist with whom he struck up a close friendship. Leichhardt and Lynd planned to produce a Flora of Sydney, and initially Leichhardt intended to send the plants they collected to Europe for identification. But later he seems to have decided to identify and describe the plants himself, particularly as he accumulated more and more undescribed plants. From March to September 1842 he made many excursions around Sydney and its environs, collecting plants and making observations on the geology of the areas visited. Among the many people Leichhardt met in Sydney were Robert and Walker Scott, who invited him to visit their properties near Newcastle, thus offering Leichhardt the opportunity of visiting a coal mining area and widening the sphere of his observations.

Leichhardt and Walter Scott left Sydney for Newcastle in September 1842, and in the next thee months Leichhardt explored the Newcastle district including visiting Scott’s properties at Ash Island and Minmi. He journeyed as far north as Port Stephens and south as far as Brisbane Water near Gosford. In early December 1842 Leichhardt purchased a horse and journeyed west up the Hunter Valley to Glendon, the property of Helenus Scott, brother of Walker. He arrived there on 20 December and made Glendon his headquarters, undertaking several excursions from it, observing the geology and collecting plants.

[Refers to map] Leichhardt then decided to explore New England, departing from Glendon on 4 March 1843. He went as far west as the Talbragar River and then moved north. As winter approached he abandoned the notion of exploring New England when the opportunity offered to go to Moreton Bay. He reached Brisbane in June 1843, met one of the three Archer brothers who had a squatting run at the fringes of settlement and was invited to their station Durundur, which he used as his base for the next seven months.

In February 1844 he left for Newcastle via New England, with a brief side excursion to the Darling Downs to collect fossil vertebrates. Four of Leichhardt’s diaries cover this period of his activities and provide a wealth of evidence about his scientific ability. Leichhardt’s method of recording in the field was to write his observations in pencil on a piece of paper and then enter up his diary or notebook in ink later that day or, if he was absent for a number of days, when he returned to the hut where he was staying. The paper with the pencilled field notes was then torn up and used as labels for his plant collection. You can imagine that way out in the middle of nowhere on the fringes of settlement paper was at a premium. I mention that because if people are trying to find the original field books for this period, they don’t exist except as little pieces of paper on herbarium specimens.

Leichhardt’s main areas of interest were botany, geology, meteorology and perhaps to a lesser extent zoology. At the time of Leichhardt’s arrival in Australia there were only about 4200 plants described from Australia, mostly from the work of Robert Brown. These plants had been described mostly from habitats close to the principal towns and from localities easily accessible from the coast. The geology of the country was virtually unknown, though in the three years since Clarke had arrived he had been able to make a good start on working out the geology of the country around Sydney. In other areas there were isolated observations made by explorers such as Sturt, Mitchell and Flinders.


Leichhardt collected plants assiduously wherever he went. In the settled areas many of the plants had been named, and in Sydney he had access to Brown’s Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae, and some volumes of De Candolle’s Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis to assist him in naming. He had also studied Australian plants in Paris and London, so was able to name many of the plants he collected. When on his journey through northern New South Wales to Moreton Bay he had no access to any texts or the notes he had made in London and Paris, which are very extensive, so he had to rely completely on his remarkable memory.

His first collections made around Sydney and Newcastle were merely labelled with the locality and rarely have precise dates recorded on the labels. However, as time passed, he became more systematic in his labelling. On his journey to Moreton Bay he started to record dates of collection on his labels more consistently. If he knew the genus and/or the species name of the plant he wrote these on the label. But because many plants were undescribed at that time, he used his own descriptive German names.

In January 1843 when at Glendon he wrote to Lynd, ‘I cannot determine a single plant and I have to give them my own names to keep them separate in my memory.’ [Refers to slide showing handwritten diary when Leichhardt was at Glendon]. Here is one list of plants that is written in German. I have translated this list and it starts off with:

Chara - Aquatic plants with linear water leaves and lanceolate air leaves, hairlike stem.
Obtusifolious explanate Vellia - [Vellya is the genus] (small flowered)
The rough-leaved kidney shaped Goodenowia
The linear-leaved slender Hypochaeris …

That was the way he labelled his specimens and how he remembered them.

To supplement his meagre funds, Leichhardt accepted an offer from the Paris Museum, from Brongniart who was mentioned by Rod Home, to sell the museum a collection of wood specimens for which he was to receive five francs per specimen. He compiled a catalogue of the woods collected and kept a duplicate set of the specimens, and many of these still survive. Each entry has a brief description of the specimen, and in many cases its Aboriginal name.

[Refers to slide] Here is a specimen in the Melbourne Herbarium. You can see Mueller’s identification and then Leichhardt’s original label written in English which says ‘Dukko mountain bush of Mr Archer, hard wood’, and so on. The back of the label says ‘Wood XVI’. This is a list [refers to slide] showing Aboriginal names and details of the plants, which are small descriptions in effect. In the Moreton Bay district, after coming into contact with Aboriginal informants, he started to put Aboriginal names on the labels and entered them in his diaries. Leichhardt recorded all the plants collected or seen using all these various terminologies; in other words, the scientific names, his long German names and Aboriginal names. On returning to his base from one of his journeys he often made detailed lists of the plants collected on it, and this is one of those lists. He also wrote down detailed descriptions of many of the plants, probably with a view to later using them as a basis for an account of the botany of Australia.

His botanical terminology is pretty much what would be used by a modern German botanist. We don’t know how many plant specimens Leichhardt collected but over 5000 herbarium sheets are preserved in Australian collections in Sydney and Melbourne. It is known that he sent large numbers of specimens to Berlin, which were all destroyed, except about 20 ferns, during the Allied bombing. And he also sent an unknown number to Paris, but not just to his friend Durando but also to the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle. Some of those have turned up but there’s probably hundreds, maybe thousands there - we just don’t know.

Leichhardt’s descriptions of plants could be quite detailed. For some reason he was particularly interested in grasses, and he wrote formal botanical descriptions for many of the grasses he collected. This is the description of Der Braune Fuchsschwanz Agrostis, which is the name he gave it. It’s now known as Dichelachne crinite, the long-haired plume grass. This is a translation of what he wrote:

The Brown-haired Foxtail Agrostis. Glumes almost equal, keeled, elongate (florets about 3 lines long), outer valves slightly incised on the apex, bristle arising under the fissure, twisted on three sides toothed, lower half brown, upper white, somewhat more than twice as long as the floret. Panicle adjacent, appearing somewhat loose by the separated bristles.

I am not a botanist and it doesn’t mean much to me but, to somebody who works on grasses, it’s quite a good description on that particular species.

[Shows slide of herbarium specimen Unga]. On this one the label says ‘Unga belonging to Dilli’, which is a plant that was used by the Aboriginal people to make their dilli bags.


Looking now at geology, in his diaries Leichhardt recorded the nature of the rocks in the areas over which he travelled and also drew sections to show the relationships of the rocks encountered. He used geological terms that most present-day geologists would use, because his geological education in Britain and France was undertaken at the beginning of the modern era of geology. He collected rocks and fossils, some of which he sent to Paris, but no specimens seemed to have survived in Australia unless they are lying unrecognised in the Australian Museum in Sydney.

Because Leichhardt was often the first person to observe the geology of the areas through which he travelled, his observations tend to be descriptive, initial impressions restricted to the line of his travel, except in those areas where he was able to spend time. Therefore he was not in a position to interpret the data that he collected and, when he did, his interpretation was sometimes incorrect. For instance, he regarded the limestone concretions present in soils developed in basaltic areas as evidence of calcareous springs, whereas they are formed from calcium carbonate resulting from the decomposition of the underlying basalt.

He had no maps onto which he could record his observations because he was always on the fringe of settlement and there were none. He compiled a geological map of the Scott properties at Glendon for Helenus Scott, but unfortunately this map has not been located. It would be wonderful if it did turn up one day. In one of his diaries there is a small geological sketch map of the area north of Glendon from St Clair to Mount Piri and the southern side of the Liverpool Range [shows Leichhardt’s map and a modern 1:100,000 map of the same area]. Because determination of the ages of the rocks he saw was not possible, he had no idea of the age relationships of the rocks he saw - except in those cases where he observed the actual superposition of one set of rocks on another. Many of the areas he investigated are now known to have highly complex geology (such as the area I have just shown you) that has taken many years to unravel, so Leichhardt could not be expected to do much more than record the rock types that he saw like basalt, granite, sandstone and so on. His rock and mineral names are perfectly acceptable terms used in rapid reconnaissance geological mapping and most accurately reflect the types of rocks and minerals he saw when his observations are compared with modern geological maps. I have done this and I must say that I am quite impressed.

He was able to use his previous experience in the volcanic districts of France and Italy to recognise the nature of similar rock formations in New England. For example, in the volcanic area of Mount Kaputar, he recognised them as being volcanic plugs, and later in Queensland when he saw the Glasshouse Mountains he recognised what they were. I wanted to show you this sketch of Rouchel Brook to Mt Scrommolo, which is north of Glendon, where Leichhardt records it as sandstone with a basalt capping. But on the 1:250,000 geological map, which was done in the 1960s, there was no basalt so I thought Leichhardt had made a mistake. But when I looked at the 1:100,000 map, which was mapped in the 1980s, I discovered that that area did in fact have basalt here. In other words, Leichhardt had climbed that mountain and mapped it, whereas the geologists who did the 1:250,000 map mapped it from aerial photographs and didn’t notice that it was basalt - they didn’t climb it, in other words.


Looking at Leichhardt’s anthropological observations he didn’t start out to record anthropological information, but when he came into contact with Aboriginal people in the New England and Moreton Bay district, he started to record some of their beliefs when he was informed of them. Reflecting his initial studies in philology, as Rod Home mentioned, he started to record their words for various items as he had more contact with them. At Durundur, where he spent some months, he was situated in an area of overlap of three language groups and he recorded words in three languages with their German translations.

He soon discovered that Aboriginal people had a wealth of knowledge about their surroundings, including the local flora, so started to give the Aboriginal names to the plants he collected. As I have mentioned, often he gave those names in the three languages, particularly where he had no scientific name for them. In many cases he recorded the name of his informant and he mentioned what language group the person belonged to so that you can work out what language group the word applies to. He says in his diary in early 1844 the uses made by Aboriginal people for many of the plants he collected:

The sharpness with which the Blacks differentiate the various trees of the scrub is extraordinary. More than 50 different trees were distinguished and hand specimens of bark and wood and specimens of leaves or fruit and blossom were collected. Each of the three language families had its own name for each tree. I recognise how proper it is to be accompanied by Blacks, and how desirable it would be even for my science to associate with Blacks during our expedition.

He used the term ‘during our expedition’; however, I don’t want to get into any discussion about what he meant by that.


Looking at zoology, as Rod Home mentioned, Leichhardt studied zoology at the Hunterian Museum and at the Paris Museum, but he didn’t have the means to make or preserve large zoological collections when in Australia, as in those days you needed a lot of spirits. However, he collected skins and skeletons of snakes, lizards and birds and also dissected many specimens, writing up his observations in his diaries. He also recorded the names given by the Aborigines to the various animals he saw.


Looking at Leichhardt’s interest in meteorology, Leichhardt assiduously recorded wind directions, cloud formation, storms and temperatures when he had access to a thermometer, but he had no instruments of his own for precise measurements so he very rarely recorded precise temperatures. He attempted to explain how the various weather phenomena arose by reference to the phases of the moon and the proximity of mountains. He was obviously greatly influenced by Clarke in this regard.

If the diaries show that Leichhardt was indeed a first-class scientist, then why is Leichhardt not better known as such? Firstly, very little of his botanical work was published, and what was has only recently been evaluated. Secondly, his plant collections were distributed amongst other specimens in herbaria and only used by other workers, as Rod Home has mentioned, principally Ferdinand von Mueller and George Bentham long after Leichhardt’s death. Thirdly, his geological observations were published in the German language in a rather obscure publication not available in Australia. The translation of his paper by George Ulrich appeared in two successive years, 1867 and 1868, in the Australian Almanac without the original illustrations. This is an equally obscure publication, and an ephemeral one at that. I have not seen either the original paper nor the translation cited by geologists, yet it is a brilliant paper. Had it been published in London we wouldn’t be trying to argue that he was a good scientist here; he would have had a reputation right from the beginning which would have never been overturned.

Had he lived, Leichhardt certainly had the potential to make major contributions to Australian natural history, but would he have done so? In a moment of contemplation in September 1843 he wrote:

It is very desirable to work out and put in order the store of experience obtained. That can only happen in Sydney, where the necessary resources are to hand for me. But then so many unknown blue mountains lie before me, which I am striving to find out about that I am seized by deep pain, whilst I am conscious of my limited means.

Perhaps more of those distant blue mountains and what lay behind them would have continued to attract him and he would have gone out yet again rather than knuckle down to the hard labour of researching his finds and writing up his results.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Tom. What a broad mind - botany, zoology, geology, anthropology. What a man we’re talking about here today, who was so far ahead of many of his colleagues.

QUESTION: I’m interested in his ability as a navigator. Was there anything in the diaries that gave an indication of his skills in that field? I appreciate he drew the geological maps okay, but were there any absolute things like latitude and longitude or any evidence that he did any training in field astronomy?

TOM DARRAGH: No. He usually had local people to put him on the right road, so he didn’t really need to navigate per se. When he was on the top of some mountains particularly in the Moreton Bay area, he took bearings. He was obviously well aware of the basic elements of cartography. He never needed to take shots for latitudes and longitudes but, even if he wanted to, he didn’t have a means of doing it. He only had a compass in that period of his work.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: It’s really good to be reminded of the significance of the earlier journeys. We tend to think of the major ones: the trip to Port Essington, the first attempt at the east-west crossing and then, of course, the final expedition. But to be reminded of the findings that he started to make almost as soon as he arrived in Australia is a great contribution that Tom has made this morning.

QUESTION: My name is David Underwood from Limestone, now known as Ipswich, which Leichhardt worked around. You referred to the bombing in the Second World War which destroyed the specimens. I assume you meant they were in Berlin?

TOM DARRAGH: Yes, he sent a lot of specimens to the herbarium in Berlin and they were destroyed. The only part of the Berlin herbarium that survived were the ferns. If the number of ferns that’s in that collection is a fair percentage of what Leichhardt sent, it must have been a very large collection because there were 20 specimens. In terms of the number of ferns that have survived in Australia, there are perhaps only 100 specimens. So if that’s a fair percentage, it was a lot of specimens.

QUESTION: I have just read a publication from the German Democratic Republic which was delivered at a symposium in 1988 here in Australia where they talked about a museum - I assume from reading the publication that it was in his hometown - where a lot of the ‘artefacts’ (which is my word for it) that were held at that museum were lost with the confusion at the end of the war. Are you aware of anything to do with those?

TOM DARRAGH: I doubt that. It would be what is now called the Humboldt Museum in Berlin that was bombed. In fact, when I was last there, two halls still hadn’t been rebuilt, but all of their collections survived.

QUESTION: Do we know what was in that?

TOM DARRAGH: We know from Leichhardt’s diaries what he sent overseas. We have no idea how many he sent, whether it was 5000 or 200 specimens, but we know what institutions he sent his specimens to and he didn’t send anything to the Humboldt Museum. The material he sent was purely botanical, nothing else.

MATTHEW HIGGINS: Thank you very much, Tom.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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