“Sons of Science”: Remembering John Gould’s Martyred Collectors


  • Patrick Noonan


John Gilbert, John Gould, Ludwig Leichhardt, collectors and explorers, memorialisation, Frederick Strange, Johnston Drummond, George French Angus, Alec Chisholm, John Gilbert’s grave


The memorial to the Victorian naturalist-explorer John Gilbert (1812-45) in Saint James’s Church, Sydney, bears the Latin inscription Dulce et decorum est pro scientia mori, which translates into English as “it is sweet and fitting to die for science.” Gilbert was killed in 1845 during a night attack by Aboriginal people on members of the first Leichhardt Expedition at a remote camp in Western Cape York. He was the only salaried collector in Australia for the nineteenth-century English ornithologist and publisher, John Gould. Two of Gould’s other primary collectors, Johnston Drummond (1820-45) and Frederick Strange (1810-54), were also “martyred” to science (Angus 5) while on collecting activities for Gould.

This article examines the contemporary and later historical remembrance of the lives and achievements of these three “men of science” (Barton 73). Using an historical and contextual approach, I consider the factors that shaped the construction and commemoration of their historical legacies in both textual and material forms. While there were similarities in the manner of their deaths there are clear differences in how their personal and scientific reputations have been remembered and recounted. I contend that the subsequent scientific and historical status of each individual was determined by a range of factors, the most significant being the different ways in which their legacies were championed by others after their deaths.