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Readers note: This is an excerpt from the Trailblazers: Australia’s 50 Greatest Explorers exhibition, developed in 2015. This content was written as a brief biography on why this person was included in the exhibition.
There are explorers who thrive in extreme conditions, who persevere, uncomplaining, no matter what is thrown at them. William Sheridan Wall wasn’t one of them. His journals reveal a reluctant and petulant traveller, yet the specimens he collected and preserved for the Australian Museum contributed much to the early study of Australian plants and animals.
Wall was born in Ireland on 22 October 1815, and studied anatomy at Trinity College, Dublin before coming to Sydney in 1840 with his brother Thomas. They both worked as naturalists at the Australian Museum.
In 1844, Wall and a bullock team made a collecting expedition along the Murrumbidgee River under the direction of George Macleay. Compared to other expeditions of the time, it wasn’t particularly troublesome or remote, basically following the weekly stage coach route that is now the Hume Highway.
But the expedition seemed to have its share of troubles, including miserable weather, a mild encounter with a bushranger, and a lack of decent food. “My stomach very raw and sore attribute it solely to makeing use of the damper which is half of it raw Badly Baked I have longily this last week for a Potatoe and I put on a bold face and Begged a few on the Road”, Wall wrote.
Despite inadequate collecting equipment, and company he didn’t particularly like (“I am compleatly sick of Bullock driving and Bullock drivers their company is anything but edifying”), Wall managed to collect 138 birds, 16 mammals and several other specimens. At Gundagai, where Wall collected and classed his bird specimens, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that he was ‘untiring’.
After this expedition, Wall was promoted to curator of the Museum, and remained in that position until 1853. Part of his duties included looking after a menagerie of animals in Hyde Park, including a mountain goat called Satan.
In 1847, William Wall and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt reconstructed a Diprotodon skeleton, but his most popular move was preparing and mounting the skeleton of a sperm whale, displaying it outside the Museum in 1849. Wall retired from the Museum in 1858 and died in 1876.
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