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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 10 January 2014

On This Day, 10 January; death of Aylmer Bourke Lambert

Aylmer Bourke Lambert never visited Australia, but he contributed quite significantly to the early understanding of its botany, in the golden days when a torrent of plant and animal specimens, mostly new and utterly wonderful to European scientific eyes, was flowing north to museums and other collections. Born in Bath in 1761, he died on this day in 1842, one of the most respected botanists of his day, though less remembered now than are some of his contemporaries. Two of these contemporaries assisted and encouraged him considerably - Sir James Smith, who was virtually the same age, and Sir Joseph Banks, a generation older.

Also of great assistance to him were the circumstances of his childhood. He was an only son whose mother (from whom came the 'Bourke') was of wealthy Irish background and her death when he was twelve brought to him the income from estates in both Ireland and Jamaica. His father and his step-mother encouraged him in his natural history interests; her family, the Seymers, included enthusiastic amateur botanists who also gave him a leg-up. When his father died, further inheritance came his way, ensuring that he never had to work for a crust, and could devote his life to his passion. (Sigh... just a personal comment.)
Aylmer Bourke Lambert, courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London.
He didn't actually graduate from Oxford, but he did meet Banks and Smith while there, and John Sibthorp. Smith in particular smoothed his way. In 1788, when Smith was already well-established and had recently been instrumental in founding the important Linnean Society, he invited Lambert to become one of its first members. Eight years later Lambert became one of four vice-presidents, a position held until he died. By then he was also a member of the Royal Society, and in 1801 Banks had him appointed to its prestigious Council.

But why? Well, he was an assiduous researcher and collector, and importantly used his position and major reference library and herbarium to help young scientists. His herbarium contained in excess of 50,000 specimens and represented the work of more than 130 collectors around the globe. Botanists came from far and wide to consult it. Sadly it would seem, after his death the herbarium was broken up and sold to institutions across Europe and the USA. He developed gardens and greenhouses to grow and exhibit exotic plants.

His most-cited works - and the ones on which he built his reputation - were monographs on the genus Cinchona (quinine trees from South America) and Pinus. His herbarium was swelled by material in Australia from contributors who included Governors Phillip and King, Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson and Surgeon-General John White. 

His zoological interests are greatly understated (the estimable Wikipedia seems unaware of them), but his writings included articles on the Indian Gaur (the so-called 'Indian Bison'), the Irish Wolfhound and a new kangaroo from New Holland, at a time when Europe still mostly thought in terms of 'the kangaroo'. He somehow acquired a collection of bird skins from the Matthew Flinders expedition, and passed them on to the Linnean Society. He also built up an invaluable collection of bird paintings from the New South Wales colony in the 1790s, many of them by Thomas Watling, convict forger and artist. This collection, of over 700 works, was bought by the NSW State Library in 2011.

He died, today, at Kew 174 years ago, but in an important sense he lives on in Australia. Lambertia was named in his honour by his friend James Smith in 1798, from specimens collected by Banks and Solander on the Cook Endeavour expedition in 1770. It comprises a genus of ten or so species of dramatic flowering shrubs in the family Proteaceae (Banksias, Grevilleas, Proteas etc), all but one of which are from south-western Australia. The exception is well-known in the sandstone country of near-coastal New South Wales.
Mountain Devil Lambertia formosa, Nowra, New South Wales.
The typical tube flowers with rolled-back perianth tubes and spiky leaves are evident here.
Mountain Devil? The answer to that lies in the spectacular woody seed capsules,
often used as toys and sold as souvenirs, suitably (or not!) decorated.

Like many heathland plants, Mountain Devils resprout after fire from underground shoots.
In the west, one of the first Lambertia species described was not at all spiky, so was called inermis - 'unarmed'.
Chittick, Lambertia inermis, Cape Le Grande National Park, southern Western Australia.
Another, also growing in sandy heathland, grows north almost to Geraldton. Like several other species its vernacular name is honeysuckle, for the nectar-rich flowers.
Many-flowered Honeysuckle Lambertia multiflora. The common name is taken directly from the species name, but neither is very helpful as it is not generally possessed of more flowers per head than other species.
It's a shame Aylmer never got here; I think he'd have liked it. Either way, it would be a pity to forget him altogether. 

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3 comments:

Flabmeister said...

I am struck by the comment "He died at Kew." More information please.

Did he have accommodation there and thus passed on where he spent more time?
Was it as a result of exertion in shifting specimens?
Or, my pick, apoplexy due to some taxonomist renaming his favourite genus?

Martin

Martin

Ian Fraser said...

Fair go Martin - he died at 81, at a time when mean age at death in England was 30! Curiously, I read that, towards the end of his life finding that "Boyton [the family home in Wiltshire] did not suit his health, Lambert took a house at Kew Green". One might conclude that Kew Green didn't suit his health either, but as I say, he'd gone way past what he might reasonably have expected.

Flabmeister said...

I think your response says my first option is the go.

My initial interpretation of "Kew" was that it was the same as the "Royal Botanic Gardens". However wikipedia mentions that the population of the surrounding district is currently a tad over 11,000. So it is likely that there were lots of people living "at Kew" in Lambert's time and demography is inexorable.

Martin