Henry James Burrell (1873-1945) was born at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney. After basic schooling, Burrell led a wandering life, including spending time as a comedian in a vaudeville act.
He developed an interest in natural history after he settled in Manilla, northern NSW with his wife Susan Emily Naegueli in 1901. As a naturalist, Burrell is most famous for being the first person to successfully keep platypuses in captivity. To do this he invented the ‘platypusary’, a storage tank which enabled him to both study and exhibit live platypuses. The platypusary was used for the first time in 1910 to show live platypuses at the Moore Park Zoo in Sydney. In 1922 he assisted Ellis Stanley Joseph with successfully transporting the first ever live platypus beyond Australian shores. The sole surviving platypus of the original 5 platypuses’ arduous journey died within a few weeks of being exhibited at the Bronx Zoo, New York.
Burrell studied the platypus over many years, collecting specimens and taking photographs, and in 1927 published the highly regarded early study The Platypus, its Discovery, Zoological Position Form and Characteristics, Habits, Life History, etc.
The large collection of platypus specimens he donated to the Commonwealth Institute of Anatomy are now held at the National Museum, Canberra.
The Harry Burrell Glass Plate Negative Collection
The Harry Burrell collection consists of 450 glass plates and covers a range of animal life from Australia, Papua New Guinea and Tasmania, dating from 1914-1918. Apart from his special interest in monotremes, the collection highlights Burrell’s passion for Australian native fauna and his developing interest in amateur photography. Many of the photos are used in Burrell’s published works including The Wild Animals of Australasia (1926) (in collaboration with AS Le Souef ) and The Platypus (1927).
The most famous images in the collection are those that Burrell took of the last living Thylacine at Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo. These images have sparked academic controversy with Carol Freeman contending that the image of the thylacine with the chicken in its mouth is a stock specimen, not a live thylacine.