Curious Minds

Read a sample chapter from Meanjin | Buy a copy from the NLA | Acknowledgements | Reviews
Who is it for? | Who's in it? | Background reading in Trove | NLA media page | Other places to buy it

cur-minds-cover-50.jpg (212K) Writing history: The idea was conceived in the second half of 2010, inspired (in a sense) by some of the stuff I had that wasn't going to be accessible or interesting to the younger readers of Australian Backyard Naturalist, the first draft was completed on January 27, 2011. By June 26, 2011: all writing was complete and the ms was submitted. On January 27, 2012, the first draft of the edited ms with all the design in place arrived, and on February 27, a cleaned-up third draft was in my hands. I had my first copy in August, and it was published on October 1, 2012. Now I just need to clean this messy page up!

It is the story for some of the curious minds who came to Australia, or in a few cases were born here, people who cared about the natural history of the place. Some were artists, some scientists, some collectors, some explorers, and some just enjoyed natural history.

ISBN 9780642277541, written by Peter Macinnis, published October 2012 by the National Library of Australia.

curious-minds-book-small-0080 (305K)

Thanks, people!

This is me, and yes, I'm looking pleased, because that thing on the right is a beautiful book.

I'm allowed to say that, because while I wrote the words, Jo Karmel, Susan Shortridge and Emma Gregory did the editing and Philip Banks and Natalie Webb did the design work, while Felicity Harmey and Jemma Posch sorted the images and it's that largely uncredited hard yakka that makes a book beautiful.

Yes, I found them lots of nice pictures to use from the National Library of Australia's collections,but that was just the start.

Anyhow, I want to thank those seven—and Susan Hall at the National Library of Australia for taking my nebulous idea for the book and then believing in it through all my stumbles.

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Find it on Amazon (NOT YET--this is a reminder to me!!)

Who is it for?

This book is written for a general readership, and it will be lavishly illustrated, using the publisher's magnificent collections and other stuff like the pics above. There are bunyips, Australian hippos, Sydney alligators and more. (In fact, the bunyip is shown below, though in the end, one clever chap realised it wasn't a bunyip, the teeth tell us what the hippo really was, and the alligator was almost certainly a lace monitor.)

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s-IMG_3233 (212K) bunyip1 (81K) bunyip2 (80K) Hint: the photograph on the far right was taken on Thursday Island. It shows the jaw of a "hippo". This one is devoid of teeth, alas, but it is still clearly a dugong, caught and butchered on the shore. Middle and left: two views of the alleged "bunyip" that William Sharp Macleay showed was really a deformed foal. The drawing is from the Sydney Morning Herald, while the photo was taken in the Macleay Museum at the University of Sydney.

Dramatis personae

In the end, the people covered include:

  • William Dampier;
  • Willem de Vlamingh;
  • Jacques-Julienne La Billardière;
  • Charles-Alexandre Le Sueur;
  • François Péron;
  • Joseph Banks;
  • Charles Darwin;
  • Ferdinand Bauer;
  • Robert Brown;
  • Amalie Dietrich;
  • Georgiana Molloy;
  • George Bennett;
  • John White;
  • Thomas Watling;
  • T. H. Huxley;
  • John Macgillivray;
  • Richard Cunningham;
  • Allan Cunningham;
  • Sir Thomas Mitchell;
  • William Blandowski;
  • Gerard Krefft;
  • Ludwig Leichhardt;
  • John Gilbert;
  • Ferdinand von Mueller;
  • Louisa Anne Meredith (aka Mrs Charles Meredith);
  • Harriet and Helena Scott (Harriet Scott was sometimes identified as Harriet Forde, her married name);
  • Louisa Atkinson;
  • Ellis Rowan;
  • William Sharp Macleay;
  • John Lewin;
  • John and Elizabeth Gould;
  • George French Angas and
  • William Hay Caldwell.

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ill-merc-rev-cm (263K) d-tel-rev-cm (429K) gleebooks-cat (236K) abbey-cm (320K) launc-ex-cm (203K) Andrew Isles catalogue (234K) 506-Newc-herald (248K)

Excerpts from a review in the Journal of Australian Colonial History

Robert Haworth, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 15, 2013, pp. 230-231:

"...the National Library of Australia has produced yet another masterpiece of colour illustration, as if to demonstrate by example that the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated. The book is beautiful to the feel: its 213 pages in soft but durable covers can be bent and flicked through like a good field naturalist's guide, revealing startling illustrations from the best nature artists of each era, and also striking portraits of some of the main characters discussed. A solemn elderly Joseph Banks stares out of one page, followed by pages of the equally knobbly Banksia plants named after him, and after these, some of the many eager but often unworldly botanists that he sent out to carry on his work."


"Macinnis makes some interesting points about the nation-building influence of the wide publication of Australian naturalist accounts, and how these in turn morphed into the Blinky Bills and Snugglepots of children's literature, which created a virtuous circle of national pride and environmental awareness. Beginning with the versatile Mrs Meredith, many of the compilers did not hesitate to join the fight to stop the senseless destruction of many of the wonders that they described, though it was obviously a lonely battle at times."


"The author is a former science teacher, whose students were very fortunate to be taught by someone with the obvious knack of bringing complicated ideas, events and people to life."

Thank you sir: I don't know you, but I like your words!

From ANZ LitLovers:

Curious 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 : 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)

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)

What 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.

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Links to some of my original source material in Trove

A lot of my information comes from contemporary newspapers which have been digitised and are in the Trove collection of the National Library of Australia. This section is for readers who want to read more and learn the stories behind the stories.

Please bear with me as I trawl my way through my notes, but ideally, anybody will be able to access this stuff.

Some of the links are to public lists that I have created on Trove which are easy to add. There are also large numbers of tagged articles, and I fear these will take rather longer to add. Please note that the way I do this, there are some tags in here that are not mine, but a goodly number of them are. The tags should all take you to newspaper articles (I think) and you will need to click on the link that says "View all xxx results" (where xxx is a number): this appears directly below "Digitised newspapers and more". Get used to it, and have fun!

Important: Once you have got inside the system, you should be able to find other tags attached to the articles. These are hot links and will take you to more stuff !!!

George French Angas

Angas tags

Louisa Atkinson

Louisa Atkinson tags

Ferdinand Bauer

German names changed tags

George Bennett

George Bennett tags | acclimatisation tags

William Blandowski

Blandowski tags | the Blandowski affair (lots of overlap)

William Hay Caldwell

Caldwell tags | echidnas | platypuses | the marsupial reproduction fuss | another view of the fuss that overlaps (look, what do you expect when it's free? there are glitches—live with it!) | and another (same caveat) | Wilhem Haacke

Allan Cunningham

Tags for Allan Cunningham

Richard Cunningham

Tags for Richard Cunningham

Charles Darwin

Darwin tags

Amalie Dietrich

Amalie Dietrich tags

John and Elizabeth Gould

Some Australian-related material, plus Darwin's finches

T H Huxley

Huxley tags | H M S Rattlesnake

Gerard Krefft

Gerard Krefft | Ceratodus | snakebite treatment | Neoceratodus | Wellington Caves

Ludwig Leichhardt

Leichhardt tags

John Lewin

Traces of Lewin's life: annotated list

John Macgillivray

Macgillivray tags

William Sharp Macleay

Bunyips: annotated list | Macleay tags | Monsters (relates to bunyips)

Louisa Anne Meredith

Meredith tags

Sir Thomas Mitchell

Wellington Caves | Mitchell tags

Georgiana Molloy

Articles about Georgiana Molloy: annotated list

Scott sisters

Helena and Harriet Scott Scott sisters tags

Ferdinand von Mueller

In the Great War, a lot of names "of enemy origin" were scrubbed from the map, including Doktor Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, K.C.M.G. Idiots!!
German names changed tags | von Mueller tags

Ellis Rowan

Ellis Rowan tags | hissy fits about Rowan's success

William Woolls

William Woolls isn't in the book, but only because I ran out of space. William Woolls tags
There is more to come on this. I am trying to write the next book, but I will do a few each day.

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Buying it

I support independent bookshops and institutions which sell my books.

Buy a copy from the National Library (Canberra)

Buy it from Abbeys (Sydney)

Buy it from Gleebooks (Sydney)

Buy it from Embiggen Books, Melbourne

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It was created on January 5, 2011 and last revised February 10, 2014

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