Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 21, 2013

Curious Minds, The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists (2012), by Peter Macinnis

Curious MindsCurious Minds, by Peter Macinnis, is a lovely book.  I stumbled across it when I was at the library picking up a book I’d reserved (Simone Lazaroo’s (2006) The Travel Writer) and I’ve been reading it on and off over the weekend.

Australians often forget just how odd our flora and fauna seem to Europeans.  That Wallace Line which defines the boundary between our fauna and what’s in the rest of the world was only recognised in 1859, but long before that travellers’ tales were full of strange rats, greyhounds that hopped (i.e. kangaroos), swans that were black in defiance of Aristotle*, and double-ended reptiles.  Curious Minds is the story of the naturalists who came to our shores and began to identify and classify our strange animals.  It’s fascinating reading.

It starts with my favourite ‘pyrate’ and his ‘hippototomus’.  William Dampier (subject of Dampier’s Monkey by Adrian Mitchell) visited Australia twice in the 17th century, and most importantly for science, wrote a book about his travels afterwards.  In A Voyage to New Holland (1699) he wrote about a massive shark that his men captured, which had in its mouth an animal still seen only rarely today :

Dugong (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Dugong (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Its maw was like a Leather Sack, very thick, and so tough that a sharp knife could scarce cut it, in which we found the Head and Bones of a Hippototomus, the hairy Lips of which were still sound and not putrified, and the Jaw was also firm, out of which we plukt a great many Teeth, 2 of them 8 Inches long and as big as a Man’s Thumb, small at one End, and a little crooked, the rest not above half so long.  (cited on p. 14)

A dugong!

Quokka family (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Quokka family (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

But even before Dampier, there was Willem de Vlamingh (1640-c1698) with his Dutch crew .  They were searching for a ship lost at sea when they found themselves on an island they named Rottnest, (Rat Nest), in honour of the quokkas that they saw everywhere.    These cute little creatures will scamper up to visitors in hope of a treat – and from what I’ve seen they get a completely different reaction to an approach by rats – but then maybe sailors at sea were more used to rats than we are today…

The men and women who observed these curiosities were indefatigable.  From the time of British Settlement, semi-professional and amateur naturalists gathered specimens, dissected them and sometimes (bravely) ate them.   They preserved their specimens with varying degrees of success, and they did their best to take them back, dead or alive, to Europe.  More in keeping with the way contemporary conservationists work, they also described them in painstaking (if sometimes inaccurate) detail, and drew or painted illustrations of them.  The book is lavishly illustrated with full colour pictures from the National Library’s collection and some of the botanical paintings are so beautiful one might almost buy two copies of the book to cut out and frame them.

Naturalists were not, however, always popular on board.  According to Nicholas Baudin (read more about him in my review of Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby), the single-mindedness of these enthusiasts could be rather a headache …

More anxious than the rest, they had pestered me from the moment they dropped anchor to allow them to go ashore, and I had been obliged to give my permission in order to be rid of them I must say here in passing, that those captains who have scientists, or who may some day have them aboard their ships, must, upon departure, take a good supply of patience.  I admit that although I have no lack of it, the scientists have frequently driven me to the end of my tether and forced me to retire testily to my room. 

(The Journal of Post Captain Nicolas Baudin, 1802, translated by Christine Cornell, 2004, cited on p24)

I was very pleased to see that the contribution of women is acknowledged in this book.  I had read about Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843) in The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women but I had never heard of Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891).  Molloy came to the Swan River Settlement with a ‘genteel love of gardens and plants’ but was worn out with childbearing and the drudgery of pioneer life when an amateur botanist called Captain James Mangles heard about her interest in plants and struck up a correspondence with her, asking her to collect specimens for him.  She sent him remarkable new species, complete with viable seed and pressed specimens that were ‘far better than those sent in by professional botanists’.   Tragically, she died aged only 38. Dietrich, on the other hand, was a professional collector.  Although the biography written by her daughter is unreliable, Dietrich seems to have had training in collecting herbs from her husband, and when the marriage failed, she sailed for Australia to collect specimens for a private museum in Hamburg.  She appears to have been undaunted by Australia’s most deadly species: she is thought to be the first European to capture a taipan, and may even have gutted a 6.7 metre crocodile.  There are wasps named after her, and her collection of spiders formed the basis of the first study of Australian spiders.

Our little Aussie platypus is one of the most intriguing animals on the planet, and the story of George Bennett (1804-1893) shows just how this elusive creature has fascinated scientists for so long.  His quest to breed the platypus was never successful – and like many in this period he sent rare and valuable specimens back to England instead of retaining them for Australia’s fledgling museum – but still, he made a remarkable contribution.

Curiously though, considering that Sir Joseph Banks is a Big Name in Botany,** his erroneous assumptions about the lush meadows of Botany Bay nearly cost the lives of the First Settlers in 1788.  There were ‘no farmers, no naturalists, no botanists, and nobody who understood mining or geology’ in the First Fleet and since they arrived in the middle of Sydney’s scorching summer, they almost starved to death.  It was up to the chief surgeon John White to accompany the governor Arthur Phillip when he went exploring, and he sent drawings, specimens and his journal back to England.  Macinnis also tells us about the mystery of the so-called Watling Collection which consists of paintings which were the first scientific descriptions of several Australian species, including some such as the magpie goose which is now extinct in Sydney.

Macinnis has an engaging chatty style, enriching his stories of these remarkable men and women with quotations from their journals and anecdotes about their lives.  But it is no hagiography: he is alert to the temptations of pride and hubris, professional jealousy and dishonesty.  There was occasional recklessness, unconcern for the safety of others, and single-minded selfishness.  He acknowledges the improper appropriation of Aboriginal artefacts and remains ‘in the name of science’ and he recognises the limitations of those whose enthusiasm was not matched by preparedness or organisational skills.  He is staunchly patriotic, devoting the latter part of his book to those naturalists who were either born here or settled here permanently and were the foundation of an Australian-based scientific community.  These include Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller (1825-1896) who founded Melbourne’s own Botanic Gardens; Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895) whose exquisitely illustrated travel books chart the transformation of her opinions about the Australian bush from dismissive to enthusiastic; the Scott sisters, Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena (1832-1910)  whose artwork, says Macinnes, has never been bettered; and Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) who was lost to natural science through childbirth – her studies of birdlife are just gorgeous.

I was especially taken with Macinnis’s description of Von Mueller’s protégé Ellis Rowan (1848-1922) and the challenge to her artistic credentials:

In open competition with male artists, she had again taken out a first-class award [the first was the gold medal in the Melbourne Exhibition] and the boys’ own hissy fit brigade began to squeal.  Not to put too fine a point on it, the chaps were outraged that a mere woman (and a mere flower painter at that) should again beat them. (p.142)

It was a sign of mean-spiritedness to come, but today her collection is the pride and joy of the NLA.

There is a delightful chapter about William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865) and his bunyip skull and Macinnis reminds us to ‘think kindly on Macleay, for he was a creature of his time and society … [and] … an original thinker, an extremely clever observer, and an encourager of others who were keen to pursue natural history’ (p. 152)

Aust Lit Month logoWhat shines through this lovely book is a sensitivity to the courage of people who set out for the unknown and to the curiosity that drove them to search for knowledge.

Highly recommended as a gift book or as a science, art, or history resource for every secondary school library.

Visit Peter Macinnis’s website to see more about Curious Minds.

* Aristotle used the example of white swans as an irrefutable fact, i.e. because all swans were white, etc.

** One of our loveliest plants, the Banksia is named after him.

Author: Peter Macinnis
Title: Curious Minds, The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists
Publisher: NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia), 2012
ISBN: 9780642277541
Source: Kingston Library

Fishpond: Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists
or Embiggen Books  –buy online or at their bricks and mortar shop across the road from the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne)

Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff.


  1. Sounds great Lisa … I must say though that my husband and his (now late) mother would disagree with you about the Banksia. Me though, I love the plant. We have three or four in our garden.


    • Oh, how could not they not love Banksias! They bring such beautiful birds to the garden:)


      • You ask me! It’s interesting too because ma-in-law loved birds.


  2. […] Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers […]


  3. I’ve seen this about in my travels. Thanks for the review. It sounds right up my alley. A must read for me. Is George Caley mentioned?


  4. Georgiana Molloy was such an interesting woman. A long time ago I read Alexandra Hasluck’s Portrait with Background, a biography heavily drawing on the correspondence between her and Banks — wonderful stuff. A great review, Lisa. (And I hope you like The Travel Writer!)


    • That sounds like an interesting one to seek out:)
      I haven’t started The Travel Writer yet, but I’m looking forward to it, I thought Sustenance was a terrific book and deserved more attention than it got.


  5. […] women and failed to make its subjects interesting.  Molloy also gets more than a mention in Curious Minds by Peter Macinnis, a much more engaging and better-written homage to the naturalists who began the work of studying […]


  6. […] Curious Minds, the discoveries of Australian naturalists, by Peter MacInnis […]


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