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Reginald Wheeler Bretnall was born in 1892 at Marrickville, the eighth of the nine children born to Frederick Bretnall and his wife Juliet, whose family name was Wheeler.

He must have been a likely lad, as he was only 14 years old when he started working as a cadet at the Museum on 11th Feb 1907, and 18 years old when he became a Junior Assistant on 1st July 1911.

Conchological Staff of the Australian Museum.
Conchological Staff of the Australian Museum. Left to right: Charles Hedley, Phyllis Clarke, Joyce Allan & Rex Bretnall. This photograph is not dated though is thought to have been taken around 1920. AMM1897-1 Image: unknown
© Australian Museum

After the start of the First World War, he made more than one attempt to join up and succeeded in late 1915. He sailed to Egypt on the SS Makarini in April of 1916, and served there as a sapper with 1 Divisional Signal Company.

All through May 1916, Rex was shuffled between the 3rd Australian General Hospital, the 4th Auxiliary Hospital and the Infections Hospital. He was diagnosed variously with a septic leg, measles and a skin infection. The latter was later determined to be eczema.

He was transferred to the U.K. in August 1916, where he was stationed at No.2 Detail Camp, Parkhouse, serving at several different locations over the next year. From March to September of 1917, Rex was either an E.D.P. (Extra Duty Pay) Corporal or an Acting Corporal, which apparently means that he had the extra work but not the extra money.

It was towards the end of this time that he was diagnosed with valvular disease of the heart (V.D.H.), due to ‘rheumatic fever last year in Egypt’. This is at variance with the original diagnosis of a septic leg and measles.

Rex Bretnall
Rex Bretnall, who joined the Museum as a cadet, served in WWI, returned to the Museum and was promoted to Zoologist in charge of Lower Invertebrates in 1919, but retired on a 'breakdown pension' in 1921. Image: unknown
© Australian Museum

Late in 1917, his rank reverted to the level of Sapper, he was declared medically unfit for military service and was returned to Australia aboard the SS Port Lyttleton. He was discharged from military service on 19th January 1918, at which point he returned to work at the Museum.

On 2nd May 1919 at the age of 26, Rex was promoted to the position of Zoologist. He took charge of Lower Marine Invertebrates when Mr. E. A. Briggs resigned from the Museum to become a lecturer at the University of Sydney. Rex settled into the position and over the next few years published the following scientific papers:

  • Onchidiidae from Australia and the south western Pacific Islands, Bretnall, Rex W., Records of the Australian Museum, Volume 12, Issue 11, 1919
    • Studies on Bryozoa. Part 1. Neoeuthyris: a new genus to accommodate Euthyris woosteri, MacGillivray, Bretnall, Rex W., Records of the Australian Museum, Volume 13, Issue 4, 1921
    • Two Australian species of Ditrypa, Bretnall, Rex W., Records of the Australian Museum, Volume 13, Issue 4, 1921
    • Studies on Bryozoa. Part 2, Bretnall, Rex W., Records of the Australian Museum, Volume 13, Issue 5, 1922
    • Palaeontological Contributions to the Geology of Western Australia. Series VII., Nos. 13,14 and 15, Bretnall, Rex W., Chapman, F., Glauert, L., Etheridge, R., Bulletin 88 (Geological Survey of Western Australia), 1926

But his war service left him physically impaired, and on 5th December 1921 he ‘retired on [a] break-down pension’.

Rex was 56 when he died on 22nd July 1949.

For more information:

Bretnall, Rex W & Chapman, Frederick, 1864-1943 & Etheridge, R. (Robert), 1846-1920 & Glauert, Ludwig (1926). Palaeontological contributions to the geology of Western Australia: series VII, nos. XIII, XIV and XV. By authority: F.W. Simpson, government printer, Perth

The Australian War Memorial

The National Archives of Australia search facility

War pensions (1900-1945): changing models of psychological understanding, Jones Edgar, Palmer Ian, Wessely Simon, The British Journal of Psychiatry, Apr 2002, 180 (4) 374-379; DOI: 10.1192/bjp.180.4.374

The Ryerson Index