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Robert Etheridge Jr, 1846–1920

Robert Etheridge Jnr was born in Gloucestershire, England, and trained as a palaeontologist. He arrived in Australian in 1866 and spent the next five years as assistant field geologist to the Geological Survey of Victoria, and as a gold miner. Back in England he became palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of Scotland, and an assistant in the geology department of the British Museum.

Robert Etheridge Jnr
Robert Etheridge Jnr Curator/Director of the Australian Museum 1895-1919 Image: unknown
© Australian Museum

First scientific survey

Etheridge returned to Australia in 1887 and worked both as assistant in palaeontology at the Australian Museum, and as palaeontologist to the Geological Survey of New South Wales. Shortly after he led the Museum’s first scientific survey, an expedition to Lord Howe Island. In 1888 he explored the caves at the junction of the Murrumbidgee and Goodradigbee Rivers.

In 1893 he was acting curator of the Museum and became curator in 1895. He faced many difficulties in these early years. The economic depression of 1893 had led to severe cuts in the operational budget and staff, and yet there was a growing need for increased collection, exhibition and working space. Due to the shortage of attendants the new Geological Hall could only be open to the public on alternate weeks.

The first decade of the twentieth century saw increases in staff and museum space. The new south wing opened in 1910. Its new lecture theatre firmly established the museum’s educational role.

Prolific publisher

A dedicated scientist, Etheridge published over 350 papers. His contribution to Australian stratigraphy was substantial. While his primary interest remained palaeontology, a significant number of studies were on ethnological subjects. Etheridge set up the separate department of Ethnology in 1906, and oversaw the enrichment of the collections of artefacts from Australia and the Pacific. Etheridge wrote an Elementary Guide to the Exhibited Zoological Collection (1914). He also wrote two important papers on the museum’s early history.

Etheridge’s tenure was marked by disagreements with some of his senior staff, and a long-running dispute with the Museum’s secretary, Sutherland Sinclair, over executive power of the Museum. After Sinclair’s death in 1917, Etheridge was made director as well as curator. He received the Clarke memorial medal of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1895, and the Mueller medal of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1911. Etheridge died suddenly of pneumonia in 1920.