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Gerard Krefft, Curator and Secretary, 1861-1874

A prolific collector and extraordinary scientist, Johann Ludwig Gerard ‘Louis’ Krefft helped modern biologists understand much of what we observe and is renowned as one of the best early zoologists. He built up the Australian Museum’s collections and recorded through sketches and descriptions species that are now extinct.

Gerard Krefft, Curator and Secretary, 1861-1874

Johann Ludwig Gerard (Louis) Krefft, 1830–1881 Ahead of his time in many respects, Gerard Krefft was one of the few Australian scientists to accept and propagate Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Krefft’s diverse contributions had considerable and far-reaching significance, and he was responsible for elevating the Australian Museum to its place in the international world of science.

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© Australian Museum

Krefft was born in Germany on 17 February 1830. His initial studies were in art. At 20, he migrated to America and then to Victoria in 1852. He worked on various goldfields until 1857, when he was asked to help William Blandowski collect specimens for the National Museum of Victoria (founded 1854), on an expedition to the Murray and Darling rivers. The expedition was hugely successful and they finished with 28 boxes containing 17,400 specimens.

Krefft, who had also made 500 drawings of Aboriginal people and natural science specimens, was employed by the National Museum to catalogue the collection. His notes and sketches of the Pig-footed Bandicoot are some of the best records of this extinct species, although he wrote: “They are very good eating and I am sorry to confess that my appetite more than once over-ruled my love for science”.

Krefft returned to Germany briefly in 1858 when his father died. In 1860 he returned to Sydney and was appointed Assistant Curator of the Australian Museum. Krefft had a broad knowledge of zoology and geology, but specialised in snakes, describing many new species of snake and marsupial. He published more than 200 scientific articles and books, including The Snakes of Australia and The Mammals of Australia, discovered extraordinary species such as the Australian Lungfish and was one of the few Australian scientists of his time to accept and promote Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.

Krefft was made Curator of the Museum in 1864. In 1866 and 1869 he excavated Wellington Caves, publicising their extraordinary fossils, which included a giant kangaroo and Diprotodon.

After falling out with the Museum’s Trustees over various allegations, Krefft was dismissed from his position in 1874. He refused to leave and barricaded himself inside the Museum until he was forcibly evicted, still seated in his chair. Gerard Krefft died in 1881.

His name is immortalised in the names of many Australian species, such as the endangered Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat, Lasiorhinus krefftii and the Southern Dwarf Crowned Snake, Cacophis krefftii.