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The eccentric and enigmatic Ludwig Leichhardt became a legend in Australian history for his voyages of exploration and spectacular disappearance without trace while crossing the Top End in 1848, but his legacy to Australian science and its early development is just as intriguing and enduring.

In January 2013, Foreign Minister Bob Carr announced that the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation would award Ludwig Leichhardt bursaries to two Australian researchers to undertake work in Germany. These represent the culmination of a seed of scientific collaboration planted by the 28-year-old Prussian naturalist 170 years earlier – when his feats of exploration and collection left a trail of inspiration spanning two continents.


Leichhardt arrived in Australia in 1842. Well travelled and university educated but without formal degrees, great wealth or high connections, he possessed a large collection of books, a small collection of rocks and minerals, and a blazing determination to explore the Australian continent to its very centre. 'I have become my own geologist, botanist, woodcutter, tree feller, cook, washerwoman, groom and plant drier’, he wrote.

He soon contacted the Secretary and Curator of the recently established Australian Museum, William Branwhite Clarke, boasting of the collections he and a friend, Lieutenant Lynd, had already amassed, ' … botanical collections … a considerable number of shells, birds, some reptiles, and if we go on in the same rate will soon create a new Australian Museum’.

The Museum was then little more than a single room in the new Court House at Woolloomooloo, opened to the public only on Wednesdays and with a sparse array of specimens. Science collection and research activities in the colony were in their infancy. As perhaps the colony’s best-educated scientist at that time, the multilingual ‘Doctor’ Leichhardt, as he came to be known, was a magnet for science enthusiasts.

One admirer, Alexander Walker Scott, later Chairman of the Museum Trust, invited the Doctor to his home at Ash Island near Newcastle. Amazed by the abundance of its zoological and botanical beauty, Leichhardt remarked: 'perhaps – I’d be content to live and die there …'. For Scott’s young daughters Helena and Harriet, who would go on to become renowned scientific illustrators, this must have been an inspiring visit.


In 1845, Leichhardt, supported by donated goods and finances and a small group of men, completed his first pioneering voyage of exploration from Moreton Bay (Qld) to Port Essington (NT). Among the party was John Gilbert, official collector for the famous English naturalist and artist John Gould. Despite the incredible hardships of the 14-month expedition, the two scientists collected voraciously and recorded detailed scientific observations as they went.

In 1846, the Australian Museum Trust heard that Dr Leichhardt ‘had collected and presented’ to the Museum various natural history specimens. Two of these, specimens of hare-wallaby, were presented by Leichhardt but collected by Gilbert. Extant in the Museum's collections today, they were used by John Gould to describe a new species, Lagorchestes
leichardti (now L. conspicillatus leichardti). Gilbert unfortunately perished on the Port Essington expedition, but Leichhardt sent many of his other collected specimens back to Gould, who dominated Australian ornithology from 1837 until his death in 1881. Gould owed much of his research collections to the industrious efforts of collectors like Gilbert and Leichhardt.

Returning to Sydney after the Port Essington expedition, a remarkable journey of scientific discovery, Leichhardt was embraced as a hero. He was certainly the most famous man on the continent and news of his achievements would reverberate internationally. Europe was excited by the prospect of the scientific riches apparently still for the taking around the Pacific. In the decade following Leichhardt’s final foray, the Austrian Novara Expedition – the first large-scale, global scientific mission – docked in Sydney. During their month here, members of the scientific contingent visited the Museum and exchanges of zoological and ethnographic material were planned and scientific observations shared.


Also following in Leichhardt’s wake were several of his countrymen who would make a mark on the development of the natural sciences in the colony. Gerard Krefft, soon to be Curator of the Australian Museum, joined William Blandowski on an expedition of discovery to the Murray and Darling rivers in 1857. Traversing rugged terrain and collecting along the way, they must have appreciated the great significance of Leichhardt’s earlier mission.

Krefft became a life-long admirer of Leichhardt and in the 1860s established a public display of ‘Australian Relics’ in the Museum featuring the explorer's personal effects, including his passport, university notes, diaries, family bible and the original manuscript of the famous Overland Journey to Port Essington. In a letter to a newspaper in 1881, Krefft wrote 'I do not think any person living knows as much about Leichhardt as I do'.

Under Krefft’s guidance, the Museum began to build an international reputation as a scientific establishment. He introduced a program of regular specimen exchanges with institutions all over the world and in the succeeding decades of the 19th century the Museum’s links, particularly with German institutions and individuals, flourished.

Leichhardt’s disappearance in 1848 acted as a catalyst for other journeys of exploration. In Melbourne for example in 1865, the famous German-born botanist Ferdinand Von Mueller suggested that it would be ‘an eternal stigma on the history of Australia’ if the fate of the lost explorer was not resolved. He encouraged ‘a union of eminent Victorian ladies’ to take up the fundraising cudgels, and funds were sought and raised in Leichhardt’s name. Over the years, various expeditions of Leichhardt seekers would eventually arrive back with little or no trace of their quarry but armed with scientific observations and zoological and botanical specimens which greatly enriched the natural history knowledge of the colony.

By 1917, the immediate memory of Leichhardt’s valuable explorations was beginning to fade. Most of his remaining personal effects were transferred from the Museum to the Mitchell Library in Sydney. Today the Museum’s Research Library holds eight volumes of Leichhardt’s personal book collection and they are currently on display in the Museum’s Atrium along with the hare-wallaby specimens.

As an ‘itinerant preacher’ giving public lectures at the School of Arts in Sydney in 1842, Leichhardt encouraged his audience to expand their horizons and ‘think about more than making money’. In the end he may have expanded his own horizons a bit too far – but what an enduring legacy to Australian science he left in the process.

Rose Docker, Archivist

First published in Explore 35(2), spring edition, 2013